Who’s Fighting the “Harder Battle”? Empathy in Prince Avalanche

Paul_Rudd_(cropped)_2           Emile_Hirsch_TIFF_2012

With summer ending, I thought it wise to fit in this feature, which discusses an end-of-summer film, Prince Avalanche (2013), which was actually released in October. *Plot spoilers to follow, so please, I beg you: watch the film if you haven’t already.

I admit that I wasn’t sure what to expect from David Gordon Green’s comedy/drama about two guys putting lines down on a stretch of road in Texas in the late 1980s. (According to A. A. Dowd’s August 2013 article for A. V. Club, the film was shot “on the cheap at Bastrop State Park in central Texas.”) But as it turns out, Prince Avalanche (2013), which was based on the Icelandic film Either Way (Á annan veg, 2011), gives us a Paul Rudd we haven’t quite seen before: a range of acting ability that goes beyond the smirking, comedic antics from the films directed and/or written by Judd Apatow, Rogen/Goldberg, and Ivan Reitman.

There’s a sensitivity in Prince Avalanche, a deft touch, which demands some patience from the viewer. Indeed, sensitivity is part of the film’s overarching theme. In particular, Green and his co-writers, Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson (director and co-writer of Either Way) and Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson (co-writer of Either Way), do an excellent job of dramatizing how a widening gulf between two men can be bridged through the ability to empathize.

On the surface, Alvin, played by Paul Rudd, is a square, hokey, in-touch-with-nature, out-of-touch-with-the-“real”-world kind of guy. He’s first seen bawling out his younger, hipper co-worker, Lance, played by Emile Hirsch. And we initially sympathize with the younger man because he seems like a free spirit. (And aren’t these names brilliantly evocative of the personalities? “Alvin,” with his perfectly symmetrical overalls, his preposterous moustache, and sexual naivete. “Lance,” which perhaps makes us think of Lancelot, wooer of lovely women, not tied down to home or convention.)

These sympathies are reinforced in one of the film’s first (of several) monologues, which occurs when Alvin writes his fiancé, Madison, who is Lance’s sister:

As for your brother, the countryside isn’t teaching him anything, other than how much he misses the big, active nightlife… He quite realistically could never amount to anything. How could you be his age and not know how to gut a fish or build a tent or tie a knot…

At this point, the audience in general might be ready to dismiss Alvin, including his pretentious habit of interspersing curmudgeonly pronouncements with bits of German.

Yet Alvin turns out to be correct in many ways. For what does Lance amount to? What does his “life” consist of? He wants immediacy, something in the present that can be instantly accessed without effort. (As it turns out, so does Lance’s sister, Madison, but more on that below). In contrast, Alvin cherishes a slower, drawn out and introspective life—which perhaps explains the surprisingly slow pace of the film and Lance’s frustration with the equally slow pace of the job.

One of the most touching scenes in the film occurs when Alvin meets an elderly woman digging through the remains of her home, which was destroyed by fire. The film’s opening caption contextualizes this for us when it mentions the terrible wildfires of 1987 in the woodlands of Texas. Alvin patiently listens, while the woman shares her old memories, and digs with her through the ashes of her life. He even mimes entering a home (which has no door, but only wet, ashy remains), greeting his imaginary wife, and asking her, “Oh, it smells good. What are you making?” (Here, Rudd does his usual comic turn, but reins it in enough to make the scene affecting, poignant.)

In other words, we should not dismiss Alvin’s pomposity—and along with it, his very rich and active mental life: his poetic turn of phrase, his sensitivity to nature, beauty, art, and literature, and his mature wish for a meaningful rather than superficial love life. Lance cannot fathom these things because he is too young or too foolish to understand them. His insistence on the immediate and the accessible means he is insensitive to experiences in life that require deeper contemplation. What’s the point of having a relationship with someone, Lance asks, if you can’t have your “little man squeezed”? (That’s an actual quote.)

The second act of the film explores this gulf between the two men when Lance recounts his failed sexual exploits. He reveals that he was punched out by his friend Kip, the boyfriend of a girl he has fooled around with. A picture is forming for us, and it only becomes worse when he adds that, after the dust up, he tried and failed to “hook up with the one with the fat little legs.” Alvin says nothing, and has, by this point, grabbed a chair and sat with what seems like rapt attention, as Lance spins the salacious tale.

Lance then confides that the next weekend he will be attending a sort of “Miss America” audition, where, he assures Alvin, he “has an 80-90% success rate at these things.” He elaborates: “A lot of the women get their hormones in a tizzy at competitive events… well then even the losers are like winners to me.” Alvin smiles but shakes his head in a sad way: “Somehow, in your mind, you truly do perceive yourself as a gentleman, don’t you?” Lance draws a blank at that, but the point hits home: he is decidedly not a gentleman but (to use an archaic but thematically appropriate noun) a perfect knave, or (to use slightly more updated parlance) a sleazebag.

In the next act, where we discover that Alvin has been dumped by Lance’s sister Madison, we get further confirmation that Lance is no gentleman: he reads Madison’s break-up letter and tells Alvin that he deserved to be dumped for being too distant. The aftermath of this incident underscores how wide the gulf is between the emotional, intellectual lives of these two men. For Lance, Alvin is at fault for not being an immediate, constant presence in Madison’s life. For Alvin, Madison and Lance are to blame for being a “weak, feeble, flimsy, tenuous people.” Then tempers flare, strong words are exchanged, and it looks like it’s about to get real ugly.

If the film can be criticized for anything, perhaps it might be how quickly the rift between the men is repaired. Alvin injures himself, comically falling into a ravine, and, after he is helped up, the two men abruptly make up. But perhaps the point here is that the argument itself did not merit the drama, the anger. Indeed, both men seem a bit embarrassed by the whole dispute. Lance says a few inarticulate though surprisingly thoughtful things about how insults tend to hide vulnerabilities in the insulter. And a good argument could be made that Alvin himself has a blindspot: he was too caught up in his own self, his own introspective lifestyle to realize that he was putting a wedge between he and Madison, and now he and Lance.

The rest of the film traces the true flowering of friendship as Lance and Alvin—two seemingly disparate souls—help each other work through the trials of loving and losing. Alvin offers Lance advice that could only come from an experienced person, while Lance does his best to cheer up Alvin who is clearly heartbroken. Interspersed throughout the film are appearances of the men, women, and children who are likely heartbroken from having lost their homes and livelihood in the Texas wildfires of 1987. Both men learn to embrace Plato’s point about empathy: “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”

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