The Motel Life is 90 minutes long, yet it still feels rambling and scattershot. This is a huge shame, because with the elements present here, it should be a whole lot better (that score up there would be even lower than it is now, but Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash’s “Girl from the North Country” plays as the credits come in, which is an absolutely perfect choice for this movie’s exit music.) It follows the story of two brothers, self-appropriated losers, who become involved in a hit and run incident, yet this narrative is little more than a framing device for the exploration of fraternity.
Or is it? Because at times it seems to be concentrating more on Frank’s (Emile Hirsch) past romantic traumas and his burgeoning alcoholism, although rarely ever at the same time, and seldom in any particular depth, and never for more than a brief period of time. Occasionally there are impressive moments – Hirsch’s hungover acting is quite often spot-on, and the flashback to his breakup with Annie (Dakota Fanning) is gripping and realistic – which make you wonder why directors Alan and Gabriel Polsky didn’t just slap an extra twenty minutes onto the film so they could spend more time delving into the problems of these troubled characters.
That the Polskys themselves are brothers should have suggested extra nuance on the protagonists’ relationship. As with every other theme in the movie, however, there are only two quick, rushed scenes of real notice given to how Frank and Jerry Lee Flannigan (Stephen Dorff) interact. One of those scenes also starts to become incredibly moving until it abruptly rounds itself off, delivering a climactic piece of dialogue that it was building towards with aplomb, its premature arrival completely ruining the moment.
This is the main problem with the movie, as well as the fact that it feels very thrown together. Strange, then, that the gorgeous animation sequences that bring Frank’s storytelling to life don’t seem so jarring, or even unusual – how come they can convincingly segue live action and animation while being unable to consistently transition as smoothly between two scenes of live action? What’s most disappointing is at the end when the film ADHDs from one tragedy to something else entirely; although, as I’ve mentioned, Dylan and Cash just about rectify this flaw, their appearance being something you’ll spend the rest of the day thinking about.
The film isn’t entirely self-defeating, however. It’s largely subdued while still being rather emotional, and its opening sequence is captivating despite the fact that not a lot happens. It’s also here that the cinematography of Roman Vasyanov is most effective, with shots of rural and downtown Reno coming to life on well-employed 35mm, combined with a stunning acoustic soundtrack. Stephen Dorff’s performance is a wonder, also, if you can discount the fact that his points of reference are rather obvious and obviously misguided. He brings a warmth to the movie through his, if not simple, simple-minded character who is almost childlike in his innocence, grounding his self-destructive brother Frank who’s portrayed by Hirsch in a DiCaprio-lite, as ever, performance. (IndieCaprio should be his name from now on, yeah? No? Nah probably not.)
The most annoying thing about The Motel Life is that certain moments feel like parts of a much better, even potentially great movie, that got lost, or cut, from some lengthy masterpiece; it’s how I can imagine watching the 90 minute theatrical cut of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America must have been like on the big screen in 1984 (although I doubt there’s a 229-minute version of The Motel Life kicking around anywhere). What sums the movie up most is Kris Kristofferson, whose character Earl Hurley is completley shoehorned in to give advice for Frank, yet actually comes out with one of the best quotes I’ve heard all year: “Don’t make decisions thinking you’re a lowlife, make decisions thinking you’re a great man, or at least a good man. And don’t be a goddamn pussy!“
The Motel Life was directed by Alan and Gabriel Polsky, written by Noah Harpster and Micha Fitzerman-Blue (based on the novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin) and stars Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff, Dakota Fanning and Kris Kristofferson. It lasts for 90 minutes and is a production of Polsky Films. Originally released in 2013.