There are times, during THE MOTEL LIFE, when it seems as if the film is sustaining itself on pure mood. Directors Alan and Gabriel Polsky have put substantial energy, in their delivery of this story of two brothers with flawed judgment but unfailing commitment to each other, into its darkness, into drenching us in the dim light of motel rooms or the darkness of city streets at night, so that when the film moves into a brighter location, such as a hospital room or a casino (the film is set in Reno), the shift comes as a shock, as if someone were shining bright lights on the story, asking us to look it in the face, possible interpretations of it being as various as the viewers themselves.
The story is a sad one, without much room for light. The two brothers, Jerry Lee and Frank, ran away from home as children after their mother’s death from cancer. In an accident which occurred while they were train-hopping, Jerry Lee lost half of one leg–and as it is, the lost half-limb comes to serve as an outer manifestation of his personality; as Stephen Dorff plays him, he seems only half-present for much of the film, as if he were talking to others while also having another conversation with himself. By contrast, his brother, played here with depressed immediacy by Emile Hirsch, seems more grounded, carrying the burden of the brothers’ perpetual rootlessness along that of his brother’s needs. After Jerry Lee kills a young boy in a hit and run accident, what was a dour story becomes much more dour–the brothers have to run from the police, and what was previously a seemingly hand-to-mouth existence becomes rife with traditional images of desperation and outsiderhood. All the motels look the same. All the meals are take-out. Frank carries a bottle of whiskey around with him like a holy chalice.
What is amazing, in the body of the film, is how much texture and soul the directors manage to reap from such a bleak story. The Nevada landscape is sublime, in the truest sense of the word, its grand, uncrossable mountains a comment on the impossibility of the brothers’ situation. Kris Kristofferson shines here in a minimal part, as an old boss of Frank’s who tries, beautifully un-invasively, to counsel Frank on how to lead a responsible, or at least a forward-looking life. Dakota Fanning is mature, and sad, and memorable as a girlfriend of Frank’s, left and then found again, living in the tiny, poetically barren town of Elko. And then there are the oddballs: one sadsack who we first meet after he’s been hospitalized following a liquid-acid binge, and another old friend of Frank, a generally unlucky gambling addict who persuades Frank to go in with him on an implausible-seeming bet.
True to itself, the progress of the movie is both sad and upbeat. As options decrease for the brothers, their trajectory becomes more wild and stealthy. They sustain themselves, as they have since childhood, through story-telling; Frank tells Jerry Lee possible anecdotes from possible lives he hasn’t lived—and the directors take a risk by animating these stories in the style of Jerry Lee’s own cartoonish drawings, a touch which doesn’t necessarily work in all movies (such as Howl, which was at its most successful when most simple, its animated sequences a distraction from James Franco’s responsible performance) but which gives a pleasant sense of release, of taking off, to this work.
As we’ve learned from Breaking Bad, from Cormac McCarthy, from Sam Shepard, from Badlands, and even from the recent COG, the land west of the Mississippi can be a fecund setting for stories having to do with loss, or restlessness, or despair, or hopelessness. The Motel Life, while it operates on a quiet enough register that it might not reach all viewers, brings home a meaningful story without significant compromise, a promising debut feature from two very skilled filmmakers.