The Motel Life is adapted by Alan and Gabe Polsky, from the debut novel by American writer and musician Willy Vlautin, frontman of alt-country critical darlings Richmond Fontaine. Vlautin’s songs and novels chiefly deal with the disenfranchised no-hopers on the fringes of the American dream, desperate people who make desperate choices. And so it is with The Motel Life.
The film follows the plot of the book faithfully, the story of brothers Frank and Jerry Lee Flannigan, played by Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff, respectively. Neither brother has much going for them. It’s implied that they’ve been drifters ever since their mother died and Jerry Lee lost a leg in an accident with a train. They move from motel to motel, the drab walls given some semblance of life by Jerry Lee’s drawings. The two escape their mundane struggles through Frank’s stories, where they play heroes who wade into danger without a second thought, where Jerry Lee invariably ends up with some buxom nymphomaniac and where Frank’s women either betray him or die violent deaths, a hint at the disastrous end to his relationship with Annie (Dakota Fanning), the daughter of a prostitute. A fateful car accident involving a local youth sends the brothers on the run from the law and throws their already troubled lives into further despair and chaos, particularly a guilt-stricken Jerry Lee.
Where Dorff may have previously been consigned to the late 90s trash heap, his performance as Jerry Lee shows he’s still got a lot to give. It’s no over-exaggeration to say this is a career-best performance. He imbues everything Jerry Lee says and does with a needy desperation that is devastatingly sad. Opposite him, Hirsch is stony-faced, resignedly greeting each setback as if it was inevitable, except for one exceptional scene where he bets the last of their money on a boxing match. The nuances to both performances signify the crucial difference between Jerry Lee and Frank; Jerry Lee still clings to some hope of a better life, Frank just pretends to in order to keep Jerry Lee going. The bond between the two recalls The Road or Of Mice And Men, and The Motel Life is just as heartbreaking as either of those two forbearers.
It may be a small, bleak dose of Americana but this perfectly formed little film is more than just misery for misery’s sake. Every detail has been beautifully crafted, every performance is a winner and every ray of light feels like a promise made to be broken. There’s definitely a niche audience out there that will love The Motel Life; and this is a film that deserves to be loved.