Sparks of energy supplied by Hirsch and Dorff illuminate an otherwise dreary film.
The Motel Life
In The Motel Life, an adaptation of the Willy Vlautin novel, an intense brotherly love is the only thing keeping Frank and Jerry Lee (Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff, respectively) afloat amid a sea of deep-seeded problems. It’s as sad as it sounds, but co-directors Gabe and Alan Polsky infuse their murky dual character-study with dark, underlying beauty that creeps up on you and sticks to your bones.
Frank and Jerry Lee live the life of working-class drifters, living out of crummy hotels around Reno. If Reno is like Las Vegas’ mopey little brother, Jerry Lee is the walking embodiment of the “Biggest Little City in the World”; he’s an alcoholic, glum, disheveled guy with a hyperactive imagination and a kind heart. When he takes the life of a child in a hit-and-run accident, he hits the bottom of his life-long downward spiral. Frank needs to scrape together enough cash to get them out of town before the cops can sniff them out. “All I’ve ever done is fuck up,” Jerry Lee utters to Frank, in despair.
The brothers’ mother died when they were young, and their father abandoned them shortly thereafter. Their devotion to one another is touching, and their rare chemistry is more than fascinating enough to drive the film. With Jerry Lee’s self-esteem and self-worth so low, it’s up to Frank to keep his spirits lifted, which he does by telling engaging, fantastical stories about the brothers leading a more adventurous existence, expressed on screen with eye-catching hand-drawn animation. In a wonderful scene, Frank helps Jerry Lee–who lost a leg in a train accident–take a shower, joking about the size of their respective…ahem…”packages”…claiming Jerry Lee got the good genes. It’s a sorry state of affairs, bathing your one-legged brother in a run-down motel, but the these guys taught themselves to cope, so they find a way to share a chuckle.
Hirsch provides a rock-solid leading-man foundation for Dorff’s more striking, flourished performance. Dorff completely disappears into Jerry Lee, and this may be his finest role yet. He wears his pain and regret on his sullen face, though his repentance is so true and honorable it gives him an air of grace. Garnering our sympathy with this character is no easy feat as, let’s not forget, he’s a hit-and-run offender.
The Polskys and DP Roman Vasnayov (End of Watch) photograph the brothers’ broken lives through a lens that’s just as hazy and smudged as their uncertain futures. It’s winter time in the deserts of Reno, and the filmmakers compose beautiful shots in the snow-blanketed scenery; when Jerry Lee burns down his incriminating car in an empty plot following the accident, the soft orange glow of the flames look ethereal nestled in the serene, heavenly blue and white surroundings.
Aside from the handful of animated respites, the story feels one-note and a little dormant. We watch the brothers prop each other up as they wade through their sorry, mucked up lives, and then the film ends, with a sigh. Actually, the quiet final moments are quite poignant, but the road to get there is so consistently somber and cold that it all feels a bit flat. Dakota Fanning and Kris Kristofferson‘s side characters are well-acted, but add little complexity to the overly-simplistic narrative. The Motel Life feels a little too down-in-the-dumps for its own good at times, but sparks of energy supplied by Hirsch and Dorff illuminate an otherwise dreary film.