The Motel Life Movie Review
There's a lovely simplicity to this quietly unnerving story about two brothers who have never had a break in life. And while it is relentlessly grim, it's also elegantly well-made, held together by another revelatory performance from Emile Hirsch as a talented guy whose path has been dictated to him by forces outside his control.
The title refers to the way two brothers have lived since their mother died: in a sleazy motel just off the strip in Reno. Frank (Hirsch) has had to be the responsible one, moving from job to job to support his chaotic, disabled older brother Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff). And now that Jerry Lee has been involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident, Frank is trying to find a way to get out of town. He turns to his old car-dealer mentor (Kris Kristofferson) for advice and considers getting in touch with his ex Annie (Dakota Fanning), even though their relationship ended very badly. But first he hits the casinos to raise some cash with his pals (Joshua Leonard and Noah Harpster).
Sibling filmmakers Alan and Gabe Polsky give the movie a darkly introspective tone, taking us into Frank's thoughts through evocative flashbacks to the brothers' struggles as teens (played by Andrew Lee and Garrett Backstrom). And as Frank tells Jerry Lee stories to help him cope with life, these tales fill the screen in gorgeous sketch-style animation that matches Jerry Lee's artistic skills. All of this gives the film a quietly moving tone that finds spiky humour and emotional resonance when we least expect it.
Anchoring all of this is Hirsch's sensitive, beautifully understated performance as a man who has sacrificed his own ambitions to care for his infuriating but loveable brother. By contrast, Dorff's broader acting feels obvious and pushy, especially when everything else about the film is so internalised. Aside from the hapless Jerry Lee, each character is quietly contained, grappling with long-buried yearnings. This makes the film feel somewhat mopey at times. But it also makes us vividly understand the central idea that we never heal completely from past injuries; we just learn to live with the pain and look to the future.