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Stephen Dorff, Emile Hirsch, and Dakota Fanning star in this drama about two transient brothers from Reno who go on the run after being involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident. Jason Buchanan, Rovi

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Apr 3, 2020

The Flannigan Brothers

Set in Reno and Elko, Nevada, "The Motel Life" tells the story of two down-and-out brothers who remain faithful to one another through great adversity. It is an independent film directed, appropriately enough by brothers, Alan and Gabe Polsky. The film is based on Willy Vlautin's 2007 novel of the same name.

Frank and Jerry Lee Flannigan have been left to fend for themselves since the death of their mother six months before the story begins. The mother tells her sons to stick together always. The boys are in late adolescence in live in a seedy rooming house drinking, eating bad food, and doing off jobs. Jerry Lee had lost a portion of a leg hopping a train in childhood. The incident and a small number of other scenes from the brothers' early lives are recounted in flashbacks.

The Flannigan brothers' marginal existence takes a turn for the worse when Jerry Lee accidentally kills a young boy in what turns into a hit-and-run as he and Frank foolishly try to cover-up Jerry Lee's responsibility. Jerry Lee is haunted by guilt for the accident. He tries to commit suicide but succeeds only in further severely damaging his bad leg. The movie centers upon the brothers' support for one another as they try to avoid what they fear will be prosecution and jail. Frank wins money on a bet and buys a car. The brothers move, together with an endearing stolen dog, to Elko where the former flame of Frank's, Annie, is living.

The movie is full of gritty down and out people, well beyond the primary characters, including a compulsive gambler who is a friend of the brothers, the owner of a gun store, waitresses in dives, and a used car salesman, played by Kris Kristofferson, who offers wise counsel to Frank to try to set his sites high in the face of squalor. Steven Dorff and Emile Hirsch offer compelling portrayals of the brothers while Dakota Fanning sparkles as Frank's former and perhaps future girlfriend. The scenes of lowlife in Reno and Elko are well captured as is the beauty of rural Nevada. The music and sound track add a great deal to the film.

The two young men each have a talent. Jerry Lee has ability at drawing the shabby scenes of the life around him together with a beautiful woman of his fantasies. Frank is a storyteller who tells tall imaginative violently erotic tales that comment on the brothers' situation and offer a ray of hope. The pace of the movie is frequently broken up by Frank's stories, which are illustrated by garish cartoons in black-and-white.

This is a simply told story of people without a great deal of hope in their lives. Critical reviews have been mixed, but I found it highly affecting. I was moved to see the film by reading Vlautin's book. The book is recounted by Frank in a first-person narration while the movie is told without this device. The movie is slightly more optimistic in tone than is Vlautin's novel.

This movie will appeal to lovers of, for example, Charles Bukowski, an author who greatly influenced Vlautin. It is a story of people who seem to have little to live for, but it offers at least a hope of redemption.

Robin Friedman .

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