' Cinema Romantico: The Motel Life

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Motel Life

Based on a novel by Willy Vlautin, “The Motel Life”, Alan and Gabe Polsky’s film from last year that fell off the radar as much as its fringe-dwelling main characters, intrinsically feels novelistic, skipping back and forth in time, siphoning out clues one by one as to how its characters got here and lingering on salient images the way a writer might linger on a description. Amidst a Sierra Nevada backdrop on the eastern edge of Nevada, this harshly phenomenal little film is set in the earliest days of the 90’s, yet evokes a weary timelessness, as if aside from certain social and technological advances it bears no difference to the American West where so many pioneers fled a couple centuries ago.


The Brothers Lee, Jerry and Frank (Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff, respectively), whose names purposely make them sound like a pair of idealistic bank robbers, are new wave pioneers with used Dodge Darts for covered wagons and seedy motels with neon signs as their encampments. Of course, as many aspiring settlers found, the promised land could render grim judgment, and in place of milk and honey the brothers have only found rot gut whiskey and convenience store burritos.

Born to a dying mother, she gives them explicit instructions as teenagers that if the state attempts to separate them, they should resist. Their fate, per parental decree, is to remain together, and they uphold this decree ‘til the bitter end, even after tragedy strikes in the early going when an effort to ride the rails goes awry, leaving Frank as a paraplegic. Yet they press on, side-by-side, and among the most moving moments in this extraordinarily moving film simply involve watching Jerry attend to the mundane rituals of caring for Frank. We are won to their side not on account of pity for their plight but because their selflessness shines through.

The story, as such, takes it cue from Frank hitting a kid with his car and fleeing the crime scene. It is intended to generate the requisite tension, just as Jerry’s long gone love affair with the beauty Annie James (Dakota Fanning) is intended to ask the additional questions of What Happened? and Will They Get Back Together? Unfortunately this comes across more like contrivance, a means to spur the story forward, and Annie is underwritten, an emblem more than a person. None of this matters. The vast richness of “The Motel Life” stems not from arbitrary plot pieces but in its finely honed observations of everyday survival, in the guilt that slowly impresses itself upon Frank more than the authorities and how the film’s atmosphere – cultivated through the photography of Roman Vasyanov and the music of Keefus Ciancia and David Holmes – sets a palpable mood of heartbreak and hope.

“Hope,” as Red Redding noted in “The Shawshank Redemption”, can be “a dangerous thing”, and yet the Polsky brothers assume an opposing stance. Kris Kristofferson turns up in a bit part, in fact, enunciating in his awesomely gravelly baritone to explicitly tell Jerry that his brother needs hope. That hope is delivered in stories he tells to Frank, illustrated on screen (by Mike Smith) as if they are a graphic novel, like a couple bums in the wild west glamorizing themselves in dime store books into something they are not. This is not, however, false hope.


The film's most exemplary shot finds Jerry on the frame’s right edge, head hung, bottle in hand, but still suffused in the light from the motel window behind him. There are elements of “The Motel Life” that might elicit accusations of fetishizing the poor but while these characters endure severe conditions, often born of their own suspect decision making, the film is not subject to wallowing and has faith in transformation. The Polsky brothers use the landscape to illustrate the good all around us even in the worst of times, and rather than dissolve into an ominous cloud of fatalism that would seem to track their every move, each of the characters, in their own ways, see the light.

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