Down-and-out Nevada stars alongside two of the screen's best young character actors in "The Motel Life," a wintry story of life on the margins. The feature spikes its lonesome mood with shots of dry humor, animated sequences and flashbacks — at times overplaying its hand, even as Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff wordlessly convey all that needs to be said.
They portray the Flannigan brothers, denizens of dive bars and cinder-block motels who have been on their own since they were kids. It's evident that life has kicked around older brother Jerry Lee (Dorff) more than Frank (Hirsch): His every glance burns with bitter acceptance of his fate. Would-be writer Frank, devoted to his brother at all costs, appears capable of escaping their cycle of rough comfort but doesn't know how.
The stories that Frank tells and Jerry Lee illustrates — heroic adventures full of guns, drugs and sexual fantasy — ease their worries. For the audience, the animated versions, however well done, divert the dark, gleaming river of the narrative's flow.
As Jerry Lee's latest and worst crisis spurs the brothers to flee Reno for Elko, the script by Noah Harpster (terrific in a small part) and Micah Fitzerman-Blue tends to drive home the obvious. Dakota Fanning and Kris Kristofferson are compelling in supporting roles, although the latter must dispense self-consciously screenwritten advice to Frank.
Debuting directors Alan Polsky and Gabriel Polsky (producers of "Bad Lieutenant") propel the material in a way that can feel overdetermined. But they grasp the eccentricities and desperation of fringe dwellers, and at its strongest their atmospheric film has the pull of a sad outlaw song.
"Motel Life" - 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for sexual content, language, some nudity, brief violent images, and drug references)
Running time: 1:25
Opens: Friday at the Siskel Film Center