wed 17/07/2019

The Motel Life | reviews, news & interviews

The Motel Life

The Motel Life

Low-budget, all-star indie gem follows bruised brothers on the run

We've got to get out of this place: Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) and Frank (Emile Hirsch) go on the run

This is a bittersweet ballad of a movie. Based on singer-songwriter Willy Vlautin’s novel and set in wintry Reno, Nevada, it’s the tale of Frank Flannigan and his older brother Jerry Lee, and what happens when Jerry Lee commits an accidental, fatal crime, forcing them to go on the run.

With Emile Hirsch as Frank, Stephen Dorff as Jerry Lee, Dakota Fanning as Frank’s ex- and Kris Kristofferson as a gruff second-hand car salesman-sage (pictured bottom left), Alan and Gabriel Polsky’s low-budget directorial debut was made with high-powered, justified faith.

Strangely compressed, incident-packed early scenes do betray the Polskys’ inexperience. At least we quickly learn that the Flannigans’ bad luck streak is life-long. The mother who raised them died of cancer when they were kids. Fearing a care home, they went on the lam for the first time. An accident while hopping trains hobbles Jerry Lee; a self-inflicted bullet wound sees his bad leg sawn off. Frank, meanwhile, never recovered from the sordid end to an idyllic affair with Annie James (Fanning), whose prostitute mother forced her into the family business, pictured above right. He’s become a quiet, working drunk living in motels, which is where Jerry Lee finds him. When The Motel Life finds its rhythm, it becomes the brothers’ love story.

The characters’ names sound like Western outlaws: Jerry Lee Flannigan, Early Hurley, Annie James (nee Oakley?). But Jerry Lee only draws a gun to turn it on himself. The brothers are beneath the law, hanging on to society’s bottom rung by their fingers. They run knowing the odds have been decisively stacked against them since they were children; that they are boozy losers who few will miss. But The Motel Life doesn’t wallow in misery. There is great tenderness between these wounded brothers. Hirsch’s performance in particular is a little miracle of understatement. His kind, watchful eyes and meekly encouraging smile suggest how much he’s keeping in to keep going. Dorff’s amputee is more showily, almost hysterically desperate. But the most heartbreaking moment is when he briefly asserts himself as the older brother, putting his own pain aside to recognise Frank’s, and demand he saves himself. Great warmth towards and between bruised people characterises Vlautin’s work. The Polskys have caught his tone.

Frank tells extravagantly fantastic stories, too, while Jerry Lee draws. The black-and-white animation of Frank’s tall tales by artist Mike Smith is beautifully done, in Jerry Lee’s swiftly scrawled sketchbook style. It’s full of the sort of bosomy femme fatales, lunatic adventure and violence these mostly innocent men need to keep reality at bay.

The Polskys have softened Vlautin’s novel a little, making us only suspect Jerry Lee was drunkenly to blame for his accident, for instance, where the book condemns him. But the film has a sure feel for place and people, and finds virtue and worth in self-destructive characters who are more usually demonised. You know where it’s all going, but watching it happen is deeply moving anyway.

Overleaf: watch the trailer to The Motel Life

The odds have been decisively stacked against them since they were children; they are boozy losers who few will miss


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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