“They set along the blacktop in the gun-metal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.”
– from “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy
As watching two brother characters of “The Motel Life”, I was reminded of the close relationship between the father and son characters in Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road”. In a grey apocalyptic world nearly devoid of hope and humanity, Father and Son cannot possibly imagine living without each other, and that makes the story all the more poignant as they desperately hold onto each other in front of more despairing plights on their uncertain journey across barren landscapes.
While their life is less gloomy in comparison, it is still tough and hard to live for Frank (Emil Hirsch) and his older brother Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff), who have wandered together for many years in Reno, Nevada. Their father, who was probably not a very good dad to them, left his family when they were young, and, as instructed by their dying mother, two young brothers had to take care of themselves after she died. They attempted to leave together before getting themselves separated from each other by authorities, but, unfortunately, Jerry Lee lost his right foot when they tried to get a free ride on a freight train.
Since that terrible accident, they have been stuck in the shabby world of low-rent motels and seedy bars, and they look lonely and isolated in their hopeless life with no visible future for either of them. While Jerry Lee currently has a girlfriend, it is apparent that their relationship will not last that long just like his previous relationships with other women, and Frank is still haunted by the memories of his ex-girlfriend Annie (Dakota Fanning) as slowly descending into the pit of alcoholism.
And then an accident happens during one dark, cold winter night. Frank runs over some boy not long after getting drunk, and he is shocked to realize that he has just killed that boy because of his reckless driving. Trembling with panic and guilt, he tells Frank that they must leave Reno now, and they soon get out of the city by their old car.
However, things do not go well for them, and then they find themselves in a more difficult circumstance. Jerry Lee is brought to a local hospital after his botched suicide attempt, and Frank must find any possible way to get the money for buying their new car as soon as possible. While feeling more remorseful about his irreversible deed, Jerry Lee also becomes more terrified of getting arrested for that, and, to make the matters worse, the local police begin to smell something suspicious about him.
While there is some tension as Jerry Lee and Frank try to wiggle out of their trouble, the movie puts more emphasis on characters as leisurely moving along its simple plot, and we meet a few people around these two sad, unhappy brothers. Their friends Tommy (Joshua Leonard) and Al (Noah Harpster) are losers as pathetic as them, and Jerry Lee’s girlfriend Polly (Jenica Bergere) is no better than them. In case of Earl Hurley (Kris Kristofferson), a local used car dealer who once hired Frank not long after Jerry Lee’s accident, he looks genuinely concerned when he learns of Frank’s sudden decision to leave the city, but he does not ask too much to Frank while helping him as much as he can.
And we see more of how Frank and Jerry Lee have had comfort and solace through their own private world where they freely wield their imagination together. While Frank is the one who concocts short tales for them, Jerry Lee draws various sketches inspired by his younger brother’s stories, and we often see some of his sketches hung upon the walls of their motel room. While some stories are adventure tales with Frank and Jerry Lee as brave heroes, other stories are about women and wild romance, and Frank is always ready to tell Jerry Lee any stories he made up – including the lie about that unfortunate dead kid killed by his older brother.
Whenever Frank tells another new story, the movie switches to animation mode as if it looked into how Frank’s stories are re-imagined by in Jerry Lee’s mind. These animation sequences feel more like filler materials at times, but they mostly work while occasionally being reflective of Frank and Jerry Lee’s seedy life environment as well as their wishes and hopes. The animation by Matt Smith is nicely drawn in its gray brown tone, and it sometimes goes wildly along with absurd pulpy elements such as a loony transvestite pirate captain with very nasty traits or a sensual hospital nurse ready to inject another shot of drug to her patient.
The movie is based on Willy Vlautin’s acclaimed debut novel, which was adapted by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster. While their adapted screenplay is terse and sparse, its unforced narrative provides enough space for mood and characterization, and the directors Alan and Gabe Polsky, who made a directorial debut with this film after producing several films including Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” (2009), show considerable skill and confidence in their competent direction. The weary loneliness surrounding their main characters is palpably felt along with the bleak wintry background on the screen, and the Polsky brothers and their cinematographer Roman Vas’yanov give us a number of well-handled scenes which are restrained but effectively capture the somber undercurrent of deep sorrow and desperation below the surface. One of the main scenes in the film is a bit showy for its longtake shot unfolded in a local casino building, but this stylish approach works along with fluid, unobtrusive camerawork, and it effectively sets the ground for the following scene.
The Polsky brothers draw very good performances from their actors. Completely different from his recent lightweight turn in David Gordon Green’s quirky comedy film “Prince Avalanche” (2013), Emil Hirsch shows an unexpected side to surprise us here in this film, and his harrowing performance conveys well quiet despair and torment inside his depressed character. As Frank is pushed more by his growing self-loathing along with alcohol, his deteriorating body eventually gives him a painful warning at one point, and Hirsch does not hit any false note as Frank struggles to start another depressing day with his usual groggy hangover.
When Frank meets his ex-girlfriend later in the story, we see a small glimmer of hope between them. Annie looks better than before as a girl making a new start, and it is possible that she and Frank restart their relationship although their past remains to be a dark cloud hovering over them. Dakota Fanning, who has now grown beyond her early years, is solid in her supporting performance, and she and Hirsch have a sad, tentative scene where their characters try to be a little closer to each other during their own private time. As two people scarred by their harsh world, they are drawn to each other as before, but we also see how they are inhibited by themselves.
As a wretched man who has no one to depend on except his younger brother, Stephen Dorff, who somehow did not get enough chances despite his promising early years, is heartbreaking to watch in one of the best performances in his career. He and Hirsch click together well with the real sense of brotherhood between their characters, and they are particularly good during the scene where Jerry Lee takes a shower with Frank’s willing assistance in their motel bathroom. While Dorff bares his character’s vulnerability without any hesitation in front of the camera, Hirsch literally supports Dorff as standing behind him, and their earnest performances make this scene into one of a few warm, intimate moments in the film.
While it is surely a slow, gloomy character drama looking at the bottom of the society, “The Motel Life” has a tarnished but sincere heart fueled by its praise-worthy performances, and we come to see its damaged characters as basically good people despite their flaws and mistakes. At one point, Earl gives a wise advice to Frank: “Don’t make decisions thinking you’re a low life. Make decisions thinking you’re a great man.” It may come quite late for Frank and Jerry Lee, but, as reflected by the final scene of the film, it is never too late to follow that advice.
Misery is better movie material than happiness…as Tolstoi said, happy folks is all same, unhappy ones unhappy each in their very own special way. Its good the movie ends on a hopeful note.
SC: Happiness is usually boring, probably because of its inherent lack of narrative drive.