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July 21, 2018

The Motel Life

by Franz Patrick


Motel Life, The (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) wakes his brother, Frank (Emile Hirsch), in the middle of the night and tells him that something terrible had just happened: He had accidentally struck a kid on a bike with the car. Although he had tried to pick him up and take him to the hospital, it was of no use. The boy was already dead.

Frank and Jerry Lee are inseparable, partly because they wish to honor their dying mother’s wish which was expressed to them back when they were still teenagers. Now in their thirties, the duo choose to remain in Reno with hopes of riding out the investigation. If they were to disappear suddenly, suspicion would surely arise.

“The Motel Life,” directed by Alan and Gabe Polsky, is more a story about the love shared between two brothers than it is about guilt, not having enough money, or the past although these three elements are major driving forces that continue to shape trail of their journey. It is a moving story, heartbreaking in some ways, and yet it is also about hope. No matter what happens, Frank and Jerry Lee are there for each other no matter what the cost.

The lead performances sizzle with stifled emotions. Hirsch gives Frank a level of strength that is almost unexpected because he looks much younger than Dorff, who injects Jerry Lee with so much pathos that we forget sometimes that he has committed a hit-and-run. I would have guessed that Dorff would play the stronger character—the protector—and Hirsch would play the guilt-ridden half.

Nevertheless, what ultimately ends up on screen is the correct decision. Since the casting choice is less obvious, those familiar with the performers’ repertoire will be fascinated because they manage to thrive in a relatively new territory. Meanwhile, those who are less familiar with Hirsch and Dorff can still enjoy the relationship of the two brothers by discovering, slowly, how their dynamics work.

The best scenes involve Frank telling Jerry Lee stories of their imagined great adventures. The wonderful animation employed vary in style and content but not so much that they come across detached from one another. On the contrary, there is fluidity in the drawings and plots and so we learn about what goes on in Frank’s mind: his inspirations, disappointments, his values, his hopes for the future. He is a man who does not speak a lot. It is easier to grab a bottle of alcohol than a shoulder of a friend—especially when he is not very social in the first place.

There are two people in Frank’s life that I wished were fleshed out a bit more. Kris Kristofferson plays a man named Earl who sells cars. In a way, he is a father figure to Frank. They share two scenes: One when Frank is a teenager (Andrew Lee) and the other when older Frank needs a car. Another person of importance in Frank’s life is a former girlfriend named Annie (Dakota Fanning). They have lost touch for years only to cross paths again under very different circumstances.

Based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, “The Motel Life” shows a portrait that may not be pretty or convenient but one that is worth looking at and thinking about. It made me feel glad that I have a brother who I believe will do anything for me when it really counts. Perhaps that is the reason why I was so moved by the brothers’ bond. Though we come from completely different backgrounds, I still saw a reflection of myself and my sibling in Frank and Jerry Lee.

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