Two bad-egg brothers escape into stories of their own making to forget about their hard-knock existence in “The Motel Life,” from fraternal producers-turned-helmers Alan and Gabriel Polsky. But their adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s Nevada-set novel is so full of explanatory flashbacks and animated sequences visualizing the characters’ invented yarns that their real dramas are indeed almost obscured. However, the presence of Stephen Dorff and Emile Hirsch, the latter on a white-trash roll after “Killer Joe” and “Savages,” should help attract indie-loving eyeballs, at least on VOD and in Euro niche release.
The Polskys are probably most famous for producing Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” and it’s easy to see why the siblings would be attracted to a story about fraternal love set against a rather seedy background.
Jerry Lee (Dorff), the older of the two Flannigan brothers, is also the bigger loser; he has only one leg to walk on, and an early sequence shows him running over a kid with his car in the middle of the night. Jerry Lee proceeds to wake up his younger sibling, still-recovering alcoholic Frank (Hirsch), and together they leave town before the cops can investigate.
In the first of too many flashbacks, it’s explained that the boys lost their mother to illness at an early age, inheriting $500 and Dad’s gold-plated rifle, and that they’ve been on their own ever since. Frank likes to make up stories that star the Flannigans as heroes in near-mortal danger, and Jerry Lee likes to draw cartoonish characters; the pic combines these two elements to show the boys’ tales as animated sequences (designed by Mike Smith).
The destination of the boys is Elko, Nev., where Frank hopes to rekindle his romance with the pretty Annie James (Dakota Fanning), despite an obviously tragic but only gradually revealed reason for their earlier breakup. This plot strand doesn’t really go anywhere, though it does offer Jerry Lee an excuse to reflect on what happiness really entails, namely having someone love you. Since he’s had only one good leg, no girl has been interested in him anymore, though it’s clear Frank partially compensates for that loss, even helping him shower in a tender scene of brotherly affection that’s played just right.
Tyro scribes Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue (as well as editors Hughes Winborne and Fabienne Rawley) struggle to find the right balance among the made-up fables, the flashbacks and the young men’s real lives. It’s often unclear where the real story lies, since none of these three strands offers much in the way of character transformation, and there’s little meaningful interaction among them.
Pic in general seems a bit too afraid that auds might not pick up on certain nuances without assistance. When Jerry Lee comments on a recurring theme in Frank’s stories, or a friendly car dealer (Kris Kristofferson, in an avuncular cameo) tells Frank that he’s “not a loser, but if you keep acting like one … ,” they don’t come across as casual remarks so much as psychological epiphanies these drifter characters are unlikely to have, much less share them with others.
Looking haggard and generally worn out by life, Dorff impresses as Jerry Lee, even if shots of his amputated leg will rather disturbingly remind arthouse-savvy viewers of Marion Cotillard’s character in “Rust and Bone.” Hirsch also convinces as a young man attached to the only remaining member of his immediate family, acting out of love as much as self-preservation. Fanning has little to do in this male-dominated film but make goo-goo eyes at Hirsch, which is a shame because her character’s past and life seem worth exploring in more detail. Supporting cast is generally on the money.
The famous Tyson vs. Douglas boxing match figures into the plot and makes clear that the story’s set in 1990, though production design and costumes are not particularly time-specific, thus nailing the way rural areas can be far behind or are even wary of the latest fashions. Sound design is especially good in the boxing-match sequence, and the cinematography by Russian d.p. Roman Vas’yanov is highly atmospheric, underlining the iciness of the characters and their wintertime surroundings. Melancholy score and songs add to the downbeat feel.