Judge Clark Douglas lives the cardboard box life.
They will do anything to find the truth.
It's easy to see why actors Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer), Stephen Dorff (Somewhere) and Dakota Fanning (Man on Fire) would be attracted to the low-budget indie feature The Motel Life. The film hands them roles that a lot of other films wouldn't, allowing them to stretch their legs a bit and hit some new notes. It's a fine actor's showcase boasting moments of inspired whimsy, but the film as a whole isn't as meaty or compelling as the individual performances.
Hirsch and Dorff play Frank and Jerry Lee, two brothers who grew up under tough circumstances. Their father walked out on them when they were young, and their mother passed away when they were teenagers. Determined to stick together no matter what, the two brothers found a way to get by, taking odd jobs where they could find them and staying wherever they could find shelter. Alas, things turned even more difficult after an accident took Jerry's leg, forcing Frank to take care of his brother on his own. Over a decade later, the two brothers are still together, living in cheap motel rooms and still just barely scraping by. One day, Jerry finds himself involved in a hit-and-run accident which takes a child's life. Frightened and desperate, Jerry and Frank go on the run, but that decision ultimately seems unnecessary—the police have little interest in solving the case. Even so, the Lee's problems are hardly concluded. Once they return to Reno, Jerry makes an unsuccessful suicide attempt and Frank starts gambling in an effort to scrape together some money.
The story is so loose and shapeless that it can almost be argued that the film doesn't really have one. These brothers aren't taking a life-changing journey so much as drifting aimlessly through another of life's dreary chapters. That's sort of the point, but it doesn't make for the most compelling viewing. The moments of drama which appear tend to be scattershot and self-contained, never really adding up to much more than a brief scene of heartache or conflict. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin, and it feels very much like the sort of thing which would probably work better on the page. The film does spring to life during some fanciful animated interludes which provides a better understanding of how these fractured brothers see the world, but they aren't enough to negate the general drabness of the affair.
Even so, the performances are stellar. Emile Hirsch gets to play the world-weary cynic for a change, and he handles the role with aplomb. His boyish appearance has often caused him to be cast as the naïve innocent, so one can imagine that he appreciated the chance to try something different. On the flip side, the generally-dour Stephen Dorff gets to play hangdog sincerity, and he's tremendous in the part. Though his neediness and constant whining can grate on the nerves, he's entirely believable throughout and his relationship with Hirsch feels fully-formed. Fanning isn't given much of a character to play, but it's the sort of part which further emphasizes the idea that she's a Serious Grown-Up Actress now (translation: she's playing a prostitute).
The Motel Life (Blu-ray) offers a strong 1080p/1.85:1 transfer which looks terrific during the animated sequences and decent enough elsewhere. The movie has an intentionally run-down, dimly-lit look, so it's not exactly a feast for the eyes, but detail and depth are strong. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is simple but effective, presenting the dialogue with clarity. Light sound design and an unobtrusive score are mixed in seamlessly. Supplements are limited to a making-of featurette, a photo gallery and a trailer.
The Motel Life is a slight effort, but whether it's worth seeing depends on what you value in a film. If you're looking for an engaging and rewarding story, it falls short. If you're looking for well-drawn characters played by gifted actors, it's worth a look. Proceed accordingly.
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