Why David Gordon Green’s New Movie Is Actually About His Career

By  · Published on August 15th, 2013

One way to describe the tone of Prince Avalanche, the new film by director David Gordon Green, is that it feels like a mash-up of Terrence Malick and Judd Apatow. There is the meandering, minimalist plot and reverence to nature that are staples of Malick’s work, but there’s also a central bro-mance between characters played by Emile Hirsch and Apatow staple Paul Rudd.

However, to invoke Malick and Apatow is really just another way of saying that Avalanche is a meeting between the old and new David Gordon Greens. It may be Green’s most autobiographical film yet, but not in the usual ways. Through its mix of styles and an ingenious central metaphor, it serves as a meditation on the young director’s career, particularly the odd choices he has made from 2009 to 2012.

It’s been a wild, frustrating ride for those of us who fell in love with Green’s early work. George Washington and All the Real Girls were little-seen but beloved by critics and festival-goers. For a while, simply being a fan of Green was like a secret password among young filmmakers. Among established critics, he earned comparisons to Malick for his use of voice-over and preference for improvisation with both camera and dialogue. His third film, Undertow, was actually executive-produced by Malick, although it received less notice that his first two. His fourth, Snow Angels, a tense domestic drama featuring an outstanding performance by Sam Rockwell, was barely seen at all.

Perhaps frustrated that his dramas were failing to resonate, Green’s career took an odd, sharp turn. Instead of trying to be the next Malick, he looked to follow in the footsteps of Cheech and Chong.

He made two stoner comedies – the terrifically fun Pineapple Express and the god-awful Your Highness – and followed them with the little-seen but quite funny The Sitter, a modern-day Adventures in Babysitting with Apatow regular Jonah Hill in the Elizabeth Shue role. Green’s college buddy Danny McBride (who had a small but memorable role in All the Real Girls) starred in two of these, and the two also collaborated on Eastbound and Down.

His comedy projects certainly varied in quality, but nearly everyone was relieved when early reviews of Prince Avalanche told of a return to form for the once and future king. The perception is that, after years of searching through various genres, Green has finally found himself. It’s easy to see how Avalanche is his most personal film yet; he had complete control over the process, having made the movie in secret over the course of two weeks in rural Texas. He has even told interviewers that the two characters in the film, played by Rudd and Hirsch, are just two sides of himself talking.

In its style and its themes, Avalanche melds the two disparate eras of his career, but what’s remarkable is how aware Green seems to be of this subtext. Although Rudd and Hirsch carve out unique and compelling characters, the real central character is the setting – a burned out forest, ravaged by recent wildfires – and it provides a perfect symbol of the state of Green’s career.

Emerging from the haze of his stoner comedies, could there be a better metaphor for the current state of the director’s career than a burned out forest? Green made his name with films that were deeply connected to the land, but he destroyed that era of his career by reinventing himself as a comedy director. Now he is seeking to rebuild, not by destroying the past but by acknowledging it. By finding himself in the ashes.

Whether you enjoyed his comedies or not, nearly everyone thought that Green’s career was destined for greater things. If we are to accept this metaphor, the final shot of the film – of children playing joyfully amidst the charred landscape, its first inhabitants since the destruction – implies that he is ready to fill the creative space he has neglected over the last few years. We should be excited for that. It is a bold director who is willing to reinvent himself and his career, but one who is willing to burn it to the ground has the potential to be great.

Noah Gittell is a freelance writer who publishes the blog ReelChange. A former political campaign staffer and non-profit lobbyist, he is also a regular contributor to “The Atlantic.”