I’ve long been a fan of Emile Hirsch, so pretty much anything he’s involved in I want to take a look at. His latest film The Motel Life is just one more example of a small project made even more worthwhile due to his presence. Teamed up with Stephen Dorff, Hirsch is very good here, doing some real quiet yet rather effective work in the film. The movie itself is far from perfect, but it’s the type of indie where you’re willing to deal with the bumps in the road because the overall product is solid enough to enjoy/recommend in my case. Directors Alan Polsky and Gabe Polsky have an interesting style (featuring some animated sequences credited to Mike Smith) which mixes well with the solid yet unspectacular script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster. They all combine to successfully adapt the Willy Vlautin novel into this film, which wasn’t an easy task. The big success is getting Hirsch in the main role, which he quietly elevates. Without him, I honestly don’t know that I would have recommended it overall, though I certainly liked it independent of just Hirsch. Call him the icing on the cake, if you will. Regardless, The Motel Life is a little flick worth seeking out.
Set in Nevada, the film is a tightly focused look at brotherhood and what it means to take care of your flesh and blood. Frank (Hirsch) and Jerry Lee Flannigan (Dorff) have been both alone and together for years now. They work odd jobs, drink often, and drift from one motel to another, living a life of impermanence. Ever since their mother died, it has been up to them to take care of each other, which also means that Frank mostly takes care of Jerry Lee. These are two broken people, but they survive, at least until Jerry Lee is involved in a hit and run accident that puts them on the road, all the way to the home of Frank’s ex Annie (Dakota Fanning). They likely won’t be caught, but Jerry Lee is feeling incredible guilt, which could wind up hurting them both in the end. When not dealing with this reality, the brothers escape through art, as Frank tells unique tall tales that Jerry Lee then illustrates. This creativity obviously livens up their existence a bit, but real life is never far away from either of their minds. For them, they only have each other, plain and simple.
The cast was the real highlight for me in terms of what to praise about this film. As mentioned above, I always enjoy Emile Hirsch and while that’s again the case here, his acting would be hard to ignore even if you weren’t a fan. There’s a subtle emotion on display from Hirsch, who’s letting you in all throughout. His heart is right there on his sleeve, which is essential for this role. Stephen Dorff is solid too, though the film is at its best when following Hirsch around. Dorff is given the more “theatrical” part though, if that makes sense. Don’t get me wrong, Dorff is far from bad, he just is at his best here when Hirsch is on the screen with him as well. They have tremendous chemistry, which is absolutely necessary, so you buy them as brothers. Dakota Fanning is under used, but it’s nice to see her continue to embrace more mature roles. I’m excited to see where Fanning goes from here. In terms of the supporting players, there are parts for Kris Kristofferson, Joshua Leonard, and a few others, but again, this is 100% about Dorff and Hirsch, with the latter being the clear best in show.
First time directors Alan and Gabe Polsky (yes, they’re brothers) obviously responded strongly to the Vlautin novel, so much so that they chose it for their directorial debut. I do wish that they had gotten a bit more meat on the bones of the script from Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, but the Polsky boys certainly make the most of it, especially in terms of those animated sequences, which visualizes the art that Frank and Jerry Lee are making. Scribes Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster didn’t do a bad job, but I did feel like there was more than could have been done here. Still, the Polskys got that performance out of Hirsch, so it’s almost all good just due to that. They’re pacing could have been better and I had the feeling the story wasn’t quite done at the end, but my quibbles are definitely on the minor side.
In the end, The Motel Life is a little film with small ambitions but a top notch lead performance by Emile Hirsch that holds it all together. Anyone who likes his work will dig what he has on display here, though just about everyone should be able to appreciate his acting in this flick. The movie has some issues, but the good definitely outweighs the bad. This is one to seek out folks…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!