The hard-drinking, hobo-like existence of the two main characters from real-life siblings Alan and Gabe Polsky’s The Motel Life (2012) recalls the kind of blighted figures and transient lives found in the pages of those classic State-side literary works which trawl the American underbelly. The drab wood-panelled watering holes and charmless cut-rate casinos the duo frequent feel like they’ve been ripped straight of a Bukowski novel, but the film (itself an adaptation of a novel by writer and musician Willy Vlautin) has a surprisingly strong personality of its own, offering up a low-key, yet consistently absorbing character study of life on the fringes of conventional contemporary society.
Due to a childhood fraught with pain and misery, Frank and older brother Jerry Lee Flannigan (played by Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff) have little in the way of stability, drifting from one rundown accommodation to the next around the state of Reno, Nevada, whilst trying to pull together to odd bit of cash here and there. Frank is still smarting from a bad breakup with his ex-girl (Dakota Fanning) and he is faced with a burden of having to look after the slower Jerry Lee, who’s partially incapacitated due to losing a leg in his teens. Things take a turn for the worst, however, when the eldest sibling is involved in a hit-and-run accident, forcing the brothers to take desperate measures to ensure they remain a step ahead of the pursuing law enforcement.
The Polsky brothers’ latest benefits greatly from their own personal experiences of that unyielding support network forged between brothers. It clearly reverberates throughout their work and is further strengthened by the fantastic lead performances. Hirsch is as solid as ever, but it’s the hugely sympathetic Dorff who seriously impresses here. Managing to easily overcome the actual decade-plus age gap between himself and his screen brother, the actor cuts a deeply damaged and haunted figure, his permanently stricken gaze conscious of the fate which awaits him. The Motel Life is a downbeat affair packed with pathos, but it remains a thoroughly riveting and deeply poignant journey, with the protagonists’ plight playing out like a stuttered road movie in search of an (seemingly) impossible end destination and cathartic resolution.