Film Review: Painfully Beautiful American Underside in ‘Motel Life’

The Motel Life 3There are melancholy shades of John Steinbeck and James Leo Herlihy (with perhaps dashes of Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver) in The Motel Life, Willy Vlautin’s novel turned movie by brothers Alan and Gabe Polsky (in their directorial debut). This is a buddy tale about the American dream only if that dream is a sad lament for tragic lives.

Unlike the pairings in “Of Mice and Men” and “Midnight Cowboy,” though, the duo at the center of the story are brothers: Frank and Jerry Lee Flannigan, down and out in Reno, Nev. And with the Polskys directing a somewhat slight (but thankfully not manipulative) script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, appropriately austere lensing by cinematographer Roman Vasyanov and fine performances by their ensemble The Motel Life is a slice of the American underside that has the heartbreak of oncoming desolation.

The Motel Life 1Frank (Emile Hirsch), to borrow from Steinbeck, is the loving George to his Lenny-like brother Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff); a freak accident led to a leg amputation for the latter, and his brother has cared for him in ways large and small for years. To deal with their painful existence hard-drinking Frank tells stories that ever-troubled Jerry Lee illustrates (some terrific Mike Smith animations bring those sketches to riveting life) as they pass through a series of locations that underscore the wear and tear of their lives.

A hit-and-run that results in death sends the two on a downward odyssey from Reno to Montana and back that inevitably leads to ruination. While The Motel Life’s path is unsurprising, its accomplished performers know how to make the most of the storyline: we ache that Hirsch’s character never seems to realize what a good man he actually is, that Dorff’s cripple in mind and body will never be able to lift himself up and that Frank’s former flame Annie James (a compellingly mature turn by Dakota Fanning) will always bear the scars of the prostitution he mother forced her into.

The Motel Life 4Kris Kristofferson ‘s wise fill-in-father-figure offers advice that might sound ham-handed coming from many other actors (such as “Don’t make decisions thinking you’re a low-life. Make decisions thinking you’re a great man. Or at least a good man.”) but not from the rhythmic sage behind the role. Even co-screenwriter Harpster has a good acting contribution as a mentally unstable acquaintance.

To the strains of such music as Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash’s “Girl From the North Country” 1969 duet (as well as good original music from Keefus Ciancia and David Holmes) this mournfully beautiful tale reminds us that in this existence there’s often a thin line between joy and pain. The Motel Life, like its realistic characters, has its flaws, but those shortcomings can be forgiven thanks to the emotional connection its creators maintain throughout its 95-minute run.

The Motel Life 2The Motel Life ( opens today (Nov. 29) in Nashville exclusively at the Belcourt Theatre (2102 Belcourt Ave.). Rated R for sexual content, language, some nudity, brief violent images, and drug references, 95 min. Directed by Alan and Gabe Polsky; written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster based on the novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin. Starring Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff, Dakota Fanning, Kris Kristofferson, Joshua Leonard, Noah Harpster, Garrett Backstrom, Andrew Lee, Nancy Young, Jenica Bergere, Oren Skoog, Hayes MacArthur and Scott MacArthur. Click here for more info and to buy tickets.

Warning: The following clip contains explicit images and is intended for mature audiences only.


*Photos by Jamie Kingham courtesy Polsky Films.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (