Brothers Gabe and Alan Polsky team up on the directorial duties for The Motel Life, their debut feature film. Adapted from Willy Vlautin’s novel of the same title, the film follows two down-and-out brothers, Frank and Jerry, as they flee from the law in the wake of Jerry’s involvement in a hit-and-run.
Starring Emile Hirsch (Frank) and Stephen Dorff (Jerry) as the leads, with supporting roles from a definitely post-child actor Dakota Fanning (Annie) and the always welcome Kris Kristofferson (Earl), The Motel Life has a promising set-up from the off. Unfortunately it’s a promise that falls partially flat in the wake of run-of-the-mill direction and derivative character development.
Almost within seconds of the film starting, it becomes immediately clear that Jerry is a liability to Frank. With a suggested mental disability and distinct physical handicap in the form of his mangled leg, Jerry weighs down his already physically and psychologically over-encumbered brother. Frank’s alcoholism doesn’t help matters, and the confluence of these factors renders the two of them eeking out what can barely be described as a living, hobbling along from one dingy hovel to the next.
In its depiction of down-and-out men on the fringes of society, The Motel Life is inevitably going to draw comparison to Hollywood Renaissance classics such as Midnight Cowboy and Scarecrow. Unfortunately in this instance it’s an unflattering comparison, as it can’t hold a candle to them. While Hirsch and Dorff deliver strong performances, Dorff in a career best actually, in contrast the direction and script are lacklustre.
One of the more interesting aspects of The Motel Life comes in the form of a series of short animated sequences scattered sporadically throughout. Frank, as a means of calming Jerry, frequently tells stories that gradually escalate in their naïve, charming ridiculousness. As he narrates these, the film collapses into jagged, frantic animated sequences that are genuinely a joy to watch. It’s just a shame when they come to and end, as the rest seems very grey.
There’s a deep yearning at the heart of this film for emotional depth and character complexity, but in reaching out for these qualities with such gusto they slip helplessly out of reach. All too often The Motel Life rams dramatic character breakdowns and traumatic flashbacks down your gullet, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth rather than the desired lump in the throat. Not without merit, but this film is insurmountably surpassed by the aforementioned classics it derives from.
The Motel Life is released on Friday 4th April, 2010.