Emile Hirsch (l) and Stephen Dorff
The Motel Life - great title - is, at its heart, a film that honors the human spirit, especially when that spirit has been battered and bruised and more often than not, disappointed. Directed by Alan and Gabe Polsky with a script by Micah-Fitzerman Blue and Noah Harpster based on the eponymous 2006 novel by Willy Vlautin, this is an honest, poignant film that is among the year's finest.
The story deals with Frank and Jerry Lee Flannigan (played by Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff, respectively), two brothers in their 30s that live in a motel in Reno, Nevada. For most of their lives, they have learned to deal with the fact that their existence will not be paved with gold. Their mother died when they were teenagers and their father Earl (nicely played by Kris Kristofferson in a small role), has little time for them, as he manages a used car lot not far away. Jerry Lee had one of his legs amputated below the knee after an accident with a train when his brother and he were running away from home; Frank, sensing the helplessness of Jerry Lee, has traded in many of his dreams for a life of caring for his brother.
Without giving away too many plot details, I can tell you that Jerry Lee is involved with a fatal accident; he tells Frank about it, but their decision is to not admit to anything. Jerry Lee becomes more worried and despondent, while Frank decides to drink even more than he usually does, if only to ease the moral pain of his choice.
The model of two brothers (or male friends) caring for each other has been the basis of several novels and films, from East of Eden to Midnight Cowboy. In fact, there are times when the harsh realities forced upon the two brothers remind us of Ratso and Joe in the latter film. Yet, this is a more subdued, more introspective story, realizing many more quiet moments of reflection. At one point, Jerry Lee asks Frank "what woman is going to make love to a man with one leg?" It's moments like this one that are among the film's most perceptive.
The primary emotional release for the two brothers is a marvelous device - Frank tells Jerry Lee wild stories from his imagination, dealing with slightly crazed dreams about gorgeous women who will do anything to please them as well heroic tales of them as fighter pilots and even one far-out tale about a cross-dressing captain on a pirate ship. As Frank tells his brother the details of these stories, the screen comes alive with animation of the incidents; the stark gray and black and white drawings (by Mike Smith) draw us into the psyche of the brothers. Clearly the dreams - or are they nightmares? - are escapes from their everyday troubles.
I love the fact that the stories are so absurd in their nature with such vivid imagination of guilty pleasures, as these two have such a troubled existence. The more despair the brothers feel, the film seems to be saying, the more extreme the release exemplified by the dreams must be. It's a nice understanding of how these characters survive their seemingly drab existence.
I say "seemingly drab" as actually the two brothers are rich in terms of their shared humanity. This is in part a love story between the brothers with absolutely no homosexual overtones. They merely love each other as brothers do, devoted to seeing that the other is rewarded with some sort of pleasure in his life, no matter how small. There's a beautifully realized scene in a motel where Frank has to help Jerry Lee take a shower, and Jerry Lee, slightly embarrassed says to Frank, "I'm naked in front of you." "It's alright," replies Frank. Simple and honest emotions - these are what The Motel Life is all about.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give this film is that never sinks to a level of pathos. It might have been easier to make this film a tear jerker, complete with a soundtrack with weeping strings (thankfully, David Holmes' score is subdued and minimal in its nature). The intelligent screenplay along with the straightforward, uncomplicated direction by the Polskys assures the humanity of this film. The writers and directors never once ask the audience for their sympathy; we're not asked to feel sorry for the brothers, merely we are asked to become involved in their lives and hope for some sort of small exit from their troubles. Perhaps in this age of pop psychology, the filmmakers could attract a larger audience by taking the easy way out, so I give them high marks for making an honest film that rewards an audience that wants to watch an intelligent human drama that can affect viewers without underlining the emotions on the screen.
One final note about this film; the performance of Stephen Dorff as Jerry Lee is nothing short of amazing. There's a weariness and confusion about his character that is seen in his face and heard in his voice, yet there's also a nice sense of joy that emerges, whether it's simply drinking a can of beer or petting his dog. This is a young man who understands that his days are numbered, one who at times feels sorry for himself, yet he loves life. It's a beautifully written character and Dorff presents us with a fully realized portrait of this individual.
This is so far removed from the super-hero, comic book explosions that have hit the screens in recent years. How nice that The Motel Life gives us a particular slice of a few lives that draw us in to a world that many of us can understand - after all, most of us have disappointments that we have to deal with from time to time. I'm betting that enough people will make this film a success, not with huge box office figures to match Hollywood's megaproductions, but a success on a level the filmmakers are looking for, which is, "did we move people when they watched this film?" The answer for me is a resounding yes.