The Motel Life

Nov 12, 2013

These boys need steady work or better living circumstances..

The Motel Life

Grade: C-

Director: Alan Polsky, Gabe Polsky

Screenplay: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, from Willy Vlautin novel

Cast: Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild), Steven Dorff (Somewhere)

Rating: R

Runtime: 85 min

by John DeSando

Gloomy nomads and gloomy Nevada in the 1990’s amount to a gloomy viewing experience in The Motel Life.  The title clues us well enough: Living any time in a motel could be disastrous for mental health.  The movie itself has that kind of despair.

Frank Lee (Emile Hirsch) helps wit-challenged brother, Jerry (Stephen Dorff), after the latter kills a boy on a bike and leaves the scene. Together they light out for motels with some imaginative cartoons representing stories Frank tells Jerry Lee throughout their lives. Some critics find the animations distracting; I find them imaginative and boredom reducing.

The confusing mash up of past and present (the boys are not much different from what they were) is relieved by Annie (Dakota Fanning), who is serene even in her conflicts.  Fanning has grown into an intelligent actress and shows it here. In fact, Frank is fortunate to have such a dear girl improbably waiting for him.

Another relief from motel boredom is cops looking for the driver of the lethal car. Add an enjoyable cameo by Kris Kristofferson as Earl Hurley, a car dealer, and the film is momentarily relieved from oblivion. Otherwise, the boys are on the lam and reminiscing while going deeper in debt and guilt.

One high point is their winning several thousand dollars betting on Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson. You can guess how wisely they use it. But the money allows them to go to another motel, by now a motif of squalor and loneliness, no surprise to those with limited income and without Marriott points. Changing motels and buying carry out food reinforces the rootless melancholy of these not-too-bright boys.  It’s tough to care about such nitwits.

On a more positive note, cinematographer Roman Vas’yanov captures the bleak winter landscape using film, not digits. It’s possible to see how much more imposing the winter can be with old-fashioned celluloid.  Just consider what Hitchcock achieves with that old Bates Motel. Now that’s not dull.

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at Contact him at