Accomplished direction can't compensate for hazy scripting in The Motel Life, Alan and Gabe Polsky's adaptation of Will Vlautin's novel about two Reno brothers, Frank (Emile Hirsch) and Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff), forced to hit the road after Jerry Lee kills a boy in a hit-and-run accident. Though they often flirt with unduly romanticizing the downtrodden brothers as figures of minor tragedy, especially through imaginative tall tales told by Frank that are depicted via black-and-white animation, the Polskys stewardship has a visual beauty — in shots of Frank hitchhiking against a gray-sky backdrop, or traversing small-town streets — that suggests their characters' lonely, wayward conditions. Both Hirsch and Dorff strive to do likewise through focused performances, but Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster's script undercuts their efforts via characterizations that haven't been drawn sharply enough. The result is that both protagonists feel only half-conceived, a shortcoming that's compounded by the fact that those around them — Kris Kristofferson's car-dealer surrogate father, Dakota Fanning's nominal hooker with a heart of gold — are one-dimensional types. Replete with a tracking shot through a second-rate Reno casino, it's a portrait of fringe-dwellers that evokes P.T. Anderson's Hard Eight, yet The Motel Life's aimless and clichéd tale makes it a work that ultimately prioritizes atmosphere over narrative purpose.
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