Film Review: The Motel Life

Two wealthy filmmaking brothers beautifully and believably tell the story of two working-poor brothers in 1990 Nevada in this impressive if imperfect directorial debut.

The Motel Life, the directorial debut of brothers Gabe and Alan Polsky, compensates for its sometimes fuzzy narrative with affecting performances, risk-taking verve, heartfelt sincerity, and a great understanding of the look and mindset of on-the-fringes life in out-of-the-way America, That it's the work of two energy-industry heirs—their father, Michael Polsky, founded SkyGen Energy in 1991 and has been the founding CEO of Invenergy since 2001—best known as producers (2009's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) makes their verisimilitude and empathy all the more impressive.

Based on novelist and musician Willy Vlautin's 2007 novel, set in 1990 Reno and Elko, Nev., Wyoming and Idaho, the movie wisely condenses the action to the Nevada locales while telling the same story. Amid well-placed flashbacks and edgily animated sequences, brothers Frank (Emile Hirsch) and Jerry Lee Flannagan (Stephen Dorff) spend their lives in cheap residence motels with white cinderblock walls, drinking whiskey like it's bottled water. Frank has been working in a fishery, and one would presume that older brother Jerry Lee, who lost his right leg below the knee in a teenage train accident, receives government disability, though that and some other pertinent facts are never made clear in a narrative that appreciates oblique storytelling so much that it occasionally overindulges.

Early one morning, a blood-covered Jerry Lee awakens Frank to say he departed his girlfriend Polly's (Jenica Bergere) place after a fight, and in the snowy darkness accidentally hit and killed a young teen bicycling. Panicked, the well-meaning Jerry Lee dropped the teen's body off at a hospital entrance, and now he's certain he'll be sent, one leg and all, to prison. The broody Frank, loyally taking care of his brother like always, packs up and they flee town. In a reflection of their futile lives, they soon wind up back in Reno, where Jerry Lee, for unclear reasons, shoots himself in his half-missing leg and is hospitalized. After police question him about the dead boy, the brothers take off again, this time for Elko. There lives an old girlfriend (Dakota Fanning) whom Frank had turned his back on after discovering something unsavory. Punctuating the plot are exquisitely animated sequences by Portland, Ore.-based animator Mike Smith and his Acme Fireworks, illustrating, Ralph Steadman-style, the adventure stories Frank makes up at the behest of his brother, who papers the walls with his own well-done drawings.

The unspoken fact of their creative talents adds an ironic sadness to these two working-poor stiffs, whose father abandoned them and whose mother, who died in their teens, convinced them it was better to run away than risk social-service agencies splitting them up. It was dubious advice that set them on a low-rung life where the biggest dream they can imagine is having a nice, clean job behind a counter and living in one's own small apartment. That's it. That's all. And anyone who's been there knows that that's real.

The Polsky brothers, in addition to their chancy choice to include animated segments, prove themselves admirably unafraid to shoot at night and in bad weather conditions—relatively difficult feats many first-timers avoid or minimize. They also do a two-and-a-quarter-minute single take with Frank and his drinking buddy Al (co-screenwriter Noah Harpster) walking into a casino and through a crowd to take an escalator upstairs to meet their friend Tommy (Joshua Leonard). It gets the characters from point A to point B smoothly and quickly when that needs to happen and is another great technical accomplishment, yet somehow needlessly showy. Fortunately, what that and the overall look of the film—well-polished in a deliberately gritty, downcast way—also showcase is the talented cinematographer Roman Vas'yanov, whose work includes David Ayer's 2012 film End of Watch and Fredrik Bond's decades-spanning, 2012 Super Bowl commercial for Budweiser, "Endless Optimism." The film's editing, frankly, could be smoother, though perhaps the editor, working with first-time directors, didn't have all the coverage he might have wanted to choose from.

The movie does suffer some narrative sticking points. Hitting and killing someone with your car accidentally isn't a criminal offense, especially in an early-morning snowstorm. So while the book may give logical insight into Jerry Lee taking what I think we can agree is the extreme measure of picking up a body, throwing it in his car and dumping it at a hospital, it needed much better explanation here than we get, especially since it's the inciting incident. (There are other, related points, but we've got a review to get through.) As well, a late scene showing Frank dutifully helping his amputee brother shower slows the film needlessly at a crucial juncture, since by that point it's not telling us anything about their relationship we don't already know.

But these are just technical things that the filmmakers will learn to overcome. The Motel Life—no relation to the same-name band—ultimately accomplishes the tricky task of painting the believable lives of two marginal people without romanticizing in the least their dire straits and awful, hardscrabble existence. Just as impressively, the Polsky brothers show a good hand with actors, giving the three leads great room to interpret without letting them overdo it—and any filmmakers who can give us a wise-old-man character (Kris Kristofferson, nailing it) who seems like a real person speaking from experience and not some woo-woo mystic are filmmakers with an innate feel for people. That's a gift.