Review: 'The Motel Life' Starring Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff, and Dakota Fanning

With shades of John Steinbeck's great Of Mice and Men, Gabe and Alan Polsky's adaptation of Willy Vlautin's The Motel Life occupies similarly dispirited, road-weary territory. Upon first glance it looks like just another gloomy art house film about the forgotten people; those who have had hope dashed from their hearts early on and live a meandering, aimless day-to-day existence on society's fringes. And in some way that's true; there's little about the film's low key construction that one would consider revelatory, but the searing, sobering performances by stars Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff are another story.

Brothers Frank (Hirsch) and Jerry Lee (Dorff) have never been able to catch a break. Their father already gone, they would lose their mother to cancer at an early age, but not before making her a solemn promise never to be separated. They've been on the run ever since, living in cheap motels scattered throughout Reno, NV and barely scraping by. Jerry Lee, who seems to be a bit on the slow side, has had a prosthetic leg ever since a train accident in his youth. Frank has picked up the familial responsibility of caring for his brother, although both are admitted "fuck ups" who seem to find new ways to ruin any hope of a normal existence. Alcohol is a comforting constant in their lives, and when a drunken Jerry Lee accidentally kills a boy in a car accident, their forced to toss aside what little they have and flee for a new town.

The weight of guilt and remorse soon ways on Jerry Lee while familial responsibility and pervasive depression tear at Frank. There's no sibling rivalry in this story, it's very much about two brothers who care deeply for one another above all else, but there's an unspoken current of disappointment that passes between them. Frank, who once had a promising athletic career and shows flashes of potential, has had put everything aside for Jerry Lee's sake. At the same time, Jerry Lee seems to recognize in some way that he's holding Frank back, but neither would ever let the other go. Not for anything in the world. The result is a story about people who are hopelessly stuck, and constantly lament their poor lot in life.

It would be frustratingly morose and melancholic if it wasn't broken up by lively animated interludes, depicting the hopeful stories Frank tells to Jerry Lee. These sequences, done in a sketchy hand-drawn style are representative of Jerry Lee's artistic ability, which along with Frank's storytelling offer the two brothers a brief window from the darkness. A rare chance at happiness arrives in Frank's ex-girlfriend, Annie (Dakota Fanning, too young for the part), a troubled soul who broke his heart in the past.

This bittersweet heartbreaker of a film is carried by that remarkably lived-in bond between Hirsch and Dorff. Hirsch hasn't thrown himself in a role this completely since Into the Wild, and his understated approach gels wonderfully with the demonstrative Dorff. It's Dorff who will really tug at your heartstrings as Jerry Lee, a broken down shell of a man ill-equipped to handle life's many challenges. A problem is the sparse nature of the script and brooding pace which threatens to become an oppressive bore. This isn't the sort of film you go into looking for a cheery uplifting experience.  The Motel Life is a contemplative, meaningful story about brotherly devotion and redemption, and it's one of the year's great surprises.