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Halfway Housekeeping

Jamie Kingham

The Motel Life (2013)

This is a movie about people who’ve slipped between the cracks. They have no settled life of any kind — no steady jobs, supportive families or stability. Some of this is their own fault, since they drink too much and make bad decisions. Some of it is pure bad luck. You can’t pick your parents. But what you can do is figure out how you’re going to deal with it, and “The Motel Life” is about three people who cope in different ways.

Frank (Emile Hirsch) and Jerry Lee Flannigan (Stephen Dorff) are brothers who have only had each other since childhood. Shortly after the death of their mother, Jerry Lee lost a leg in an accident; and since then Frank has devoted himself to looking after his brother. As the movie starts, Jerry Lee makes a bad mistake which should not be spoiled, and Frank panics and makes a few more. But deep down they are not bad people, and one thing does not directly follow another.

A movie about inarticulate, wounded drifters doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but when it’s directed with such panache by Alan and Gabe Polsky (who are brothers themselves) based on a novel by Willy Vlautin, it’s easy to slip into the rhythms of these unsettled lives. No dates are given, but a central event is a bet placed on the Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas fight, which took place in 1990. And a key gimmick is how Jerry Lee’s depressions can only be cured by Frank’s wild fantasy stories, which are illustrated by filthy rotoscoped animated sequences by Mike Smith.

But a better way out is offered by Annie (Dakota Fanning), whom Frank dated before she decided to get the hell out of Reno, Nev. When they show up in the north Nevadan tourist trap where she now works in a bakery, there’s a little scene where Annie and Frank chat nervously for the first time in years. The way Ms. Fanning shakes her shoulders as she describes her new life is utterly perfect. In her own way she is just as damaged as Frank and Jerry Lee, but she’s trying harder to do something about it.

This is a hopeful movie. Frank worked as a child at a used-car lot, owned by a smart man named Earl (Kris Kristofferson), who sees something in him and over the years is quietly encouraging. Annie’s attempts at home cooking are a stark contrast for the cheap meals in diners Frank normally must settle for. Jerry Lee’s obsessive drawings of a cartoon woman he calls Wanda brighten up the walls of the moldy places they normally stay in. Visually it’s drab with slush in the streets, and aurally it’s quiet — there’s little music in the film. As a mood piece it works extremely well.

The question then is why this film is being released in Britain. A small American movie such as this, set in a remote part of the country, does not have any obvious appeal to an international audience — with the exception of the casting of Ms. Fanning. She has clearly decided to counterbalance her work in monster blockbusters such as “The Twilight Saga” with less rambunctious movies like this. It’s wonderful that it’s being shown over here, since there is a major Americana trend happening in Britain at the moment, with American cooking as featured through television shows such as “True Blood“ and “Man v. Food“ a current craze. (A Five Guys burger in central London will set you back $15.) But even though what British cinemagoers will get from this movie is up for debate, it's still well worth seeing.


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