DIR: Alan and Gabe Polsky, Starring: Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff, Dakota Fanning, Kris Kristofferson US, 2012. 95mins Based on Willy Vlautin’s (a singer-songwriter turned author) 2006 novel of the same name, this indie road-movie concerns downbeat Americana as its most melancholic. But don’t assume it’s depressing viewing; as brothers Frank (Emile Hirsch) and Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) drift through odd-jobs, motels, casinos and whiskey, in the search for safety, they are a lesson in loyalty, hope and finding the beautiful in the mundane.
Their backstory is boiled down to an unfortunate accident involving Jerry Lee’s leg and a promise to their dying mother never to separate. Bad luck is never far around the corner, with their fates seemingly forever circumscribed by circumstance. When Jerry Lee is involved in a fatal hit-and-run, their only choice is to escape Reno and head towards Elko, the home of Frank’s former lover, Annie (Dakota Fanning). As the brothers traverse the economic fringes of society, through a landscape as rugged and bruised as they are, Joan Didion’s opening to her seminal essay collection ‘The White Album’ seems particularly pertinent. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”, she wrote. In The Motel Life Frank and Jerry Lee do just that; inventing wild, wacky and downright improbable adventures to find relief from a disenfranchised existence. Frank spins stories just as fast as Jerry Lee can sketch them, providing a much-needed outlet and expression for their pent-up frustrations and on-going disappointments.
The Polsky brother’s intersperse colourful animations to depict these tales, punctuating the desolate landscapes with a poeticism and phantasmagoria.
They also remind me immensely of Annie Proulx’s collection of short stories ‘Close Range’, where gritty realism marries with surrealist imagery, exploring an America at once austere and magical. Slant Magazine contends, “in Vlautin’s book, these stories are simply weaved into the prose, beautiful in their straightforwardness and vital in depicting the characters as wayward romantics. But the Polskys struggle to integrate this animation into their film”. I would proffer that despite presenting a disturbance from narrative flow or engagement, these cartoonish interludes allow for humour (albeit dark) and whimsicality to seep into an otherwise bleak cinematic texture. They give us a sense that beyond the wintry setting and harsh reality, a version of the American Dream just might beckon in the distance.
Imbuing the film with a much-needed dose of humanity, are two winning performances from Hirsch and Dorff. They are the heartbeat of the film, and the reason you endure this perilous journey alongside them. Hirsch’ Frank is a self-destructive alcoholic, getting over his heartbreak caused by Annie’s dabbling in a seedy underworld. Whilst Dorff’s Jerry Lee, immobilised physically and economically, simmers with sincerity, emotion and anguish. Their bromance is utterly believable, relying on each other to survive and delivering the emotional peaks and troughs with raw intensity and naturalism.
As they encounter death, gambling, amputation, prostitution, drinking, gay-bashing, attempted suicide, theft and romantic possibility, Hirsch and Dorff are consistently understated, but thoroughly captivating.
Dakota Fanning’s character needs fleshing out to be more than a flash in the pan cameo, though what we do see of her is promising and gestures towards the continuation of a mature career. Kris Kristofferson meanwhile features as a ‘cruel-but-kind’ car salesman, offering Frank some sage fatherly advice and further adds to the rugged US iconography of the film.
The Motel Life doesn’t reinvent or particularly revitalise the genre, but neither does it claim to do so. Much like its two protagonists, the film appears content to just get by, doing it’s own thing. Vacillating between flashbacks, animated segways and current drama, the production design, editing and cinematography all depict a weary wasteland to potent effect – like Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ on a drug-induced comedown.
I’m anxious not to wax lyrical about its quiet potency for fear that you’ll expect a masterpiece. But go in with muted expectations and you’ll discover an assured, artistic and affecting directorial debut.
Verdict: An indelible, endearing and atmospheric portrait of impoverished America, with performances that resonate and pathos to boot.