‘Prince Avalanche’ – a existentialist 1980s version of ‘Waiting for Godot’

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

About as close to a good film version of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” as we’re ever likely to get, “Prince Avalanche” pairs Paul Rudd and Emil Hirsch as a couple of  road workers in Texas, circa 1988.  The time is important because it increases their isolation which is key to the film.

No cell phones or computers in a stretch of charred Texas in the late ‘80s.

No cell phones or computers pretty much anywhere, for that matter. Decked out in matching coveralls, the two look like the Super Mario Brothers rendered into flesh and blood.

Their mind-numbing job is to paint the yellow line down the middle of a road surrounded by charred trees— the result of a wildfire we’re told. These bare ruined choirs (as Shakespeare might have had it) make a fitting backdrop for a situation that grows increasingly surreal.

Alvin (Rudd) and Lance (Hirsch) are a bit charred themselves. Alvin, the veteran, has hired Lance mostly because he’s the younger brother of a Alvin’s girlfriend (to whom he writes copious unanswered letters, another function of  their pre-tech world).

Initially, the two clash on predictable culture issues; Alvin listens to a how-to-speak-German tape while Lance prefers rock-n-roll. Alvin knows about things like fishing and setting up a tent; Lance has no idea.

What they have in common is a shared solitude, which, as happens in  “Godot,” leads to some extremely odd conversations and confrontations. When Lance heads into town for the weekend, Alvin has even more bizarre encounters — most notably, an elderly woman in an eccentric red hat who apparently has returned to the ashes of her former home. To add to the metaphorical resonance, she’s looking for her pilot’s license (wings?) which she believes is somewhere in the singed rubble.

Director David Gordon Green has rarely made movies that are to my taste. However, they have been to many others — consider the success, critical if not always commercial, of such films as “Undertow” and “Pineapple Express.”

Yet “Prince Avalanche” (I’m still trolling the Web to find the meaning of the title) has exactly the sort of what-tha’??? that I’m partial to.  Most likely, that’s because it’s an adaptation of an obscure Icelandic film and obscure/sorta Scandanavian films have always set right with me—the more weirdly obscure the better.

Things happen to Alvin and Lance, for no logical reason, whether it’s a fight they have over music or the strange old man who keeps showing up in his truck, complimenting them on their work and leaving off a complimentary bottle of vodka.

What does it all mean? Your guess is as good — and certainly as valid — as mine. Given that I’m a sucker for well-acted existential run-arounds, your guess is probably better.

And so it goes….

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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