Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Motel Life

Brothers Alan and Gabe Polsky make their directorial debut with an adaptation of the fraternally themed Willy Vlautin novel "The Motel Life," about the peripatetic Flanagan boys, Frank (Emile Hirsch) and Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff).

Together, they traverse Nevada's second congressional district, wandering in and out of jobs, bars, motels, friendships, relationships. Jerry Lee draws illustrations and Frank, younger but clearly more mature, creates fantastic stories around them, mental escapes from their hardscrabble days and nights. When Jerry Lee, possibly under the influence of his preferred whiskey, accidentally kills a boy in a hit-and-run, they leave the bright lights of Reno for a new start in Elko.

"The Motel Life" is a movie of mood, and it sustains its mood from start to finish through a series of telling scenes and images. Before they leave Reno, Frank takes the gold-finished Winchester rifle their late mother left them to a pawnshop. He's friendly with the son of the pawnbroker. All three men stare at it and know it is too good for them. "All I can offer you is $400, and I don't recommend you take it." Frank takes it, and wagers $250 of it at 40-to-1 on Buster Douglas against Mike Tyson. The cashier at the casino cage counts out ten thousand dollars, and he smiles a mile wide as he scoops it up. It's more money than he's ever held - ever seen. Suddenly flush, he gives a C-note to a friend just sprung from the loony bin, who warns him, "Don't ever get thrown in there. It's worse than you think." The pawnbroker's son, a minor partner in the Douglas bet, takes his share to the game tables, and we see the look in the eyes of a man feigning nonchalance as midnight strikes on his one reprieve from a lifetime of bad luck. 

Frank brings his winnings to the car lot of Earl Hurley (Kris Kristofferson), who first suggests a Honda Civic. "We need something bigger," Frank says, "something maybe two people could sleep in." He leaves with a Dodge Dart - "I'll knock $200 off the price if you go out there and start it yourself" - and he and Jerry Lee do spend the freezing night in it, miles from civilization on a snowed-over field. They arrive at a motel in Elko, where in one scene Frank helps Jerry Lee, who's shot himself in the leg, take a shower, and winds up soaked. These are not movie stars acting at a remove; these are terrific actors getting dirty in the trenches.

Kristofferson is quietly effective in a small part, telling Frank to make choices "as if you're a great man, or at least a good man," and Dakota Fanning brings what depth she can to Annie, the daughter of a prostitute, Frank's once and perhaps future love. "The Motel Life" is about big towns that are small, and snow and rain and sleet, and whiskey at dive bars, and whiskey back at the room, and restaurants where you order a slice of apple pie and a coffee, and motels, and life. The droll, unfussy animation (of Frank's storytelling) is by Mike Smith of "Futurama."

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