The directorial debut by the Polsky Brothers is a touching and intimate tale of two brothers living out of suitcases; their worlds are embroiled in casinos, violence, darkness and dive bars. Starring Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff as brothers on the run, The Motel Life is based on the novel by folk musician, Willy Vlautin.
Frank (Hirsch) and Jerry (Dorff) are down and outers, they have no education and instead live their daily lives out of cheap motel rooms with only their alcohol and their imaginations to keep them busy. Frank is a magnificent and vivid storyteller, reimagining their own life story and taking them away from the mundane routine of their lives. Jerry illustrates Frank’s story and covers the walls of their room in his drawings; this is what allows him to leave everything behind and think of a dream world where both the brothers exist as different people. When Jerry is involved in a hit and run with a young boy, he becomes so entirely consumed by guilt, even though it wasn’t his fault, which forces the brothers to pack their bags, hit the road and run as fast as they can.
They end up across the state, thinking that they would be leaving their history far behind, at the home of Frank’s ex-girlfriend, Annie (an incredibly subtle but beautiful Fanning) where they hope to be able to create lives for themselves. On the way there though, Jerry runs away to try and distance himself from his brother, his past and the world that he has left behind but when he tries to commit suicide, his brother comes to the rescue. Told through the most delicate of flashbacks, The Motel Life is an incredibly interesting tale about two brothers looking out for one another, when there is no one else around to look out for them.
The nuances of the Polsky’s storytelling really adds to the charm of the picture, they carefully tread on the damage of Jerry’s mental and physical health and how Frank is forced to care for his brother when he needs him the most. This is beautifully shown in a scene when Jerry is trying to have a shower; in a flashback the audience is told that Jerry had, had an accident when he was a child and lost a leg so as everything starts to fall apart from adult Jerry, he needs help with even the simplest of tasks. The scene starts with him in the shower and Frank outside carefully scrubbing his body, there is a sensualness to the scene, which Hirsch and Dorff capture with such intelligence and beauty, playing the scene to really captivate the emotions of the audience. When Frank steps into the shower in his clothes, Jerry makes a comment about him being naked but Frank doesn’t care; this is his brother and he would do anything for him. He continues to scrub all over Jerry’s body, slowly and thoughtfully illustrating how much he truly cares.
The chemistry between the three main actors is elegant and bewitching; Hirsch in particular shows off the power of his trade. Every single scene with Dorff is so spot on, it seems they have known each other for years. There is also something to be said for this relationship with Fanning in the film – their story is told through flashbacks as well. They were together and in love but when Frank walked in on Annie performing sexual acts on another man, he walked out forever but it turns out she wasn’t their on her own accord and Frank has never quite let go of her in his head. When the two come back together, there is a glimmer of hope and survival for the future, which is especially connoted at the end, to live out their lives in one way or another as they can.
The Motel Life is a slow burner, the pacing is not perfect but the imagery is divine and memorable. There is a great cameo from Kris Kristofferson, who only appears on screen for a matter of minutes but leaves an ever lasting effect on the audience watching. An affecting and moving experience, The Motel Life is one of the best sibling stories in years and something that deserves a repeat viewing, just to catch all the symbolism and ideology of the story.