The Winter of Their Discontent

The Motel Life features great performances and cinematography to mine beauty from darkness

Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff play solemn brothers quite convincingly in The Motel Life, a solid adaptation of the critically praised novel by Willy Vlautin. Fans of the novel might notice some distinct changes, but the "sometimes bad luck hits you" and brotherly companionship themes of the book remain strongly intact.

Frank Lee (Hirsch) is sleeping off his latest drunk in a seedy Reno hotel room when half-naked brother Jerry (Dorff) enters the room shivering and bawling. On a cold winter's night, Jerry has accidentally run over and killed a boy on his bicycle, and he's begging to get out of town. Frank hears the story, vomits, and then agrees to take a drive.

A string of bad decisions and actions follows, and a lesser-made film might've been too dark and depressing to take. Thankfully, directing brothers Alan and Gabe Polsky combine beautifully shot images with stellar performances to keep things rolling in a way that keeps us rooting for the brothers.

When their travels bring them back to Reno, the film features a wonderfully cast Joshua Leonard as a bad gambler who, nonetheless, makes a good recommendation to Frank. He talks him into betting on the infamous Tyson-Douglas fight. I also bet on this fight back in the day, and I don't remember the odds being as high as they are in this film at fight time (40-1!). Kris Kristofferson and Dakota Fanning make strong contributions in supporting roles.

One element that is played up a bit stronger than it is in the novel is Frank's tendency to tell his brother grandly exaggerated, made-up stories upon request. For these stories, the film employs some good-looking animation by Mike Smith that reminded me of the great Gerald Scarfe's animated contributions to Pink Floyd-The Wall.

It's nice to see Dorff, a potentially great actor who has never really found his place in Hollywood, getting a role that matches his talents. Dorff captivates as Jerry, a man missing a leg due to an accident in his youth, an injury that has affected his entire adult state. He's a scared, scarred man with a good heart who can't handle the wrong he believes he's done, and it sends him on a downward spiral. Dorff makes every inch of that spiral believable and heartbreaking.

Hirsch, so good in this year's Prince Avalanche, has another 2013 performance that qualifies as excellent. As the storytelling, hard-drinking Frank, he's got both legs but is, in many ways, as vulnerable as Jerry due to his rough past. Hirsch, when he gets the right roles, is an exciting actor, and he truly gets to show off that talent in this film. He's still got the promising Lone Survivor and a TV version of Bonnie and Clyde on his 2013 slate, further cementing this year as his best yet. He's also just been cast as John Belushi in an upcoming biopic, so he's really taking off.

The two feel like real brothers in this film. Watching them, I was reminded of Gary Sinise and John Malkovich playing brothers in both John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and Sam Shepard's True West. In fact, they should get on their phones with their agents and start arranging a Broadway revival of True West right now. We're due for another True West staging after the likes of Bruce Willis, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly botched up more recent versions. I'm thinking Dorff and Hirsch would do Shepard proud.

Having read The Motel Life, I can tell you that some of the plotting changes are a bit jarring, but the directors do a nice overall job of re-creating the vibe of the book. The Polsky brothers, along with screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, have adapted Vlautin's novel in a way that honors the book and, for me, results in increased appreciation for the movie's original source material.

The Sierra Nevada winter is a great character in The Motel Life. Anybody who has driven that stretch from Reno east towards Elko during the dead of winter can relate to the suffocating effect of the snow and cold in this movie. Winter is, at once, very beautiful and very dangerous. While the snow is a blessed friend to the skier and snowboarder, it's the sworn enemy of a scared somebody trying to flee a town without snow tires.

The Motel Life walks that fine line of being dark without being unrelentingly depressing. There's a certain joy in seeing two actors performing together so perfectly, something that gives this movie a feeling of triumph amid the intentionally conveyed despair.

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