Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff play solemn brothers, quite convincingly, in The Motel Life, a solid adaptation of the critically praised novel by Willy Vlautin. Fans of the novel will notice some distinct changes, but the book’s themes of brotherly companionship and bad luck in life remain strongly intact.
Frank Lee (Hirsch) is sleeping off his latest hangover in a seedy Reno hotel room when his half-naked brother, Jerry (Dorff), enters the room shivering and bawling: On a cold winter’s night, Jerry has accidentally run over and killed a boy, and he’s begging to get out of town. Frank hears the story, vomits and then agrees to take a drive.
A string of bad decisions and actions follow, and a lesser film might’ve been too dark and depressing to take. Thankfully, directing brothers Alan and Gabe Polsky combine beautifully shot images with stellar performances to keep things rolling in a way that keeps us rooting for the brothers.
When their travels bring them back to Reno, the film features a wonderfully cast Joshua Leonard as a bad gambler who somehow makes a good recommendation to Frank: He talks him into betting on the infamous 1990 Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas fight. (I also bet on this fight back in the day, and I don’t remember the odds being as high as they are in this film—40-to-1!) Kris Kristofferson and Dakota Fanning make strong contributions in supporting roles.
One element that is played up more in the film than the novel is Frank’s tendency to tell his brother grandly exaggerated, made-up stories upon request. For these stories, the film employs good-looking animation by Mike Smith that reminded me of the great Gerald Scarfe’s animated contributions to Pink Floyd The Wall.
It’s nice to see Dorff get a role that matches his talents; he’s a great actor who has never really found his place in Hollywood. Here, he captivates as Jerry, a man missing a leg due to an accident in his youth—an injury that has affected his entire adulthood. He’s a scared, scarred man with a good heart who can’t handle the wrong he believes he’s done. Dorff makes every inch of Jerry’s downward spiral believable and heartbreaking.
Hirsch, so good in Prince Avalanche, now has another 2013 performance that qualifies as excellent. As the storytelling, hard-drinking Frank, he is, in many ways, as vulnerable as Jerry due to his rough past. Hirsch, when he gets the right roles, is an exciting actor, and he truly gets to show off that talent in this film. He’s still got the promising Lone Survivor and a TV version of Bonnie and Clyde coming out in 2013, so this year may be his best yet. (He’s also just been cast as John Belushi in an upcoming biopic, so he’s really taking off.)
Hirsch and Dorff feel like real brothers in this film. I was reminded of Gary Sinise and John Malkovich playing brothers in both John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Sam Shepard’s True West. In fact, Hirsch and Dorff should call their agents and start arranging a Broadway revival of True West right now. We’re due for another True West staging after botched-up versions with Bruce Willis, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly. I’m thinking Dorff and Hirsch would do Shepard proud.
Having read The Motel Life, I can say that some of the plotting changes are a bit jarring, but the directors do a nice overall job of re-creating the vibe of the book. The Polsky brothers, along with screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, have adapted Vlautin’s novel in a way that honors the book and, for me, results in increased appreciation for the movie’s original source material.
The Sierra Nevada winter is a great character in The Motel Life. Anybody who has driven from Reno east toward Elko, Nev., during the dead of winter can relate to the suffocating effect of the snow and cold. Winter is, at once, very beautiful and very dangerous.
The Motel Life walks that fine line of being dark without being unrelentingly depressing. There’s a certain joy in seeing two actors performing together so perfectly, something that gives this movie a feeling of triumph amidst the intentionally conveyed despair.
The Motel Life is not currently playing in Coachella Valley theaters, but is available for rental on demand and on iTunes during its limited theatrical run.