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An evanescent piece of Americana set between Reno and the Sierra Nevadas, The Motel Life gives a human side to the underdog world of bars and strip clubs, gun shops and car lots in the tale of two brothers bound in misfortune. Sensitively directed by real-life brothers Alan and Gabriel Polsky, who produced Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, it has a fetching gentleness that belies the toughness of its story, based on a Willie Vlautin novel. Adults-only content will preclude a lot of television sales, but its quiet merits could find takers in festivals and small theatrical venues. It premiered in competition at the Rome Film Festival.
Despite a few rough edges and not enough background detail for their characters to be truly convincing, the central performances by Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff hold the film together with the intensity of their brotherly affection and support. Adding to cast power is Dakota Fanning as a good girl picking herself up after a bad fall and Kris Kristofferson as a fatherly car dealer with much wise advice to offer.
Frank (Hirsch) and the older Jerry Lee (Dorff) lost their mother as kids. Before she died, she left them $500 and their dad’s gold Winchester rifle, along with a warning to always stay together. But almost immediately things go awry. In their attempt to hop a freight train young Jerry Lee loses a leg, and so much for backstory.
Now young men, they are forced to face another tragedy together when Jerry Lee runs over and kills a boy on a bicycle late one snowy night in Reno. His feelings of guilt don’t keep him from running from the scene, and most of the film rides on the tension of them being on the run from the law, which is always one step behind them. To hide the evidence, fuzzy-thinking Jerry Lee burns the car and shoots himself in the thigh, ending up immobilized in the hospital while Frank scrambles for some cash so they can make their exit. It ably illustrates their touching to-the-death loyalty, as well as their innate tendency toward self-undoing that follows them like a black cloud. Their lives are so tightly interwoven it comes as a shock to learn Frank was once in love with a girl named Annie James (Fanning), a quiet blonde who dreams of escaping from the wrong side of the tracks with him, before a devastating incident breaks them up.
Trying hard to make the unlucky pair more interesting, the Polskys endow Jerry Lee with artistic skills and Frank proudly papers their cement-block motel rooms with his sketches, some of cowboys, some of big-breasted ladies. Frank himself is a story-teller and his fairy tales (illustrated amusingly and pornographically by Mike Smith) are much in demand. The unlikely sight of the wounded, greasy-haired, raw-looking Jerry Lee dozing off to Frank’s unchained imagination is one of the film’s lasting images.
Notable cinematography by Roman Vasyanov renders the raw tenderness of wintertime in Nevada with beautifully inventive lighting. David Holmes‘ music is another plus, always right on tone.
Venue: Rome Film Festival (competition)
Production company: Polsky Films
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff, Dakota Fanning, Kris Kristofferson, Joshua Leonard
Directors: Alan Polsky, Gabriel Polsky
Screenwriters: Noah Harpster, Micha Fitzerman-Blue based on a novel by Willy Vlautin
Producers: Alan Polsky, Gabriel Polsky, Ann Ruark
Co-producers: Liam Satre-Meloy, Adam Schott
Director of photography: Roman Vasyanov
Production designer: Ryan Warren Smith
Costumes: Kurt & Bart
Editor: Hughes Winborne
Music: David Holmes
No rating, 85 minutes
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