Stephen Dorff and Emile Hirsch play brothers on the run in "The Motel Life." Credit: Jamie Kingham/Polsky Films
‘The Motel Life’ Directors: Alan and Gabriel Polsky Stars: Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff Rating: R Rating: 4 (out of 5) Globes
“Tell me a story” commands Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) to his brother Frank (Emile Hirsch) in the poignant, evocative drama “The Motel Life.” Frank launches into a tale — one of several vignettes nicely animated by Mike Smith — about Nazis and fighter pilots before the story comes back to grim reality of eking out a low-rent life in Reno, Nevada.
The brothers are close, especially since, as flashbacks show, their mom sent them off with some money as she was dying. They were told to stay together “no matter what.” When Jerry Lee comes back to their motel, nearly naked and bemoaning, “Something happened,” their bond is truly tested.
What happened was that Jerry Lee killed a kid. He soon shoots himself in the leg — one he injured years ago trying to jump a train — to create an alibi. When the cops suspect Jerry Lee of the hit-and-run, Frank busts his brother out of the hospital, and they flee to Elko, Nevada, where Annie (Dakota Fanning), Frank’s ex, now lives.
As “The Motel Life” shuffles along to its not unexpected ending, it features some tender scenes between Frank and Earl Hurley (Kris Kristofferson), who doles out sage wisdom. But the film goes slack when Annie re-enters the picture. Frank’s relationship with her is unconvincing.
However, this flinty indie drama benefits from the rich performances, which are as hard as the characters’ lives. Hirsch astutely conveys Frank’s burdens, and a scene where he sheds a tear while driving reveals the long-held pain welled up deep inside him. Hirsch plays well off Dorff, who has a strong speech near the film’s end. The relationship between these brothers is credible — although a scene of them showering together is perhaps, unnecessary.
“The Motel Life” also boasts terrific cinematography by Roman Vasyanov. Many of the film’s shots are so artfully composed, they look like a photograph or a postcard — although few folks would send icy, albeit striking images such as Frank sprawled out drunk on a bathroom floor. In addition, a lengthy tracking shot through a casino is fantastic, particularly since it is accompanied by another great anecdote — this one told by Frank’s sad sack friend Al (co-writer Noah Harpster).
Ultimately, “The Motel Life” is all about storytelling, creating hope as well as providing an escape for those whose life is as rough as the characters. This unpretentious film does both of these things quite well.