The Motel Life: New adventures in literary adaptation

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Stephen Dorff and Emile Hirsch break out of a hospital in The Motel Life.
  • Stephen Dorff and Emile Hirsch break out of a hospital in The Motel Life.
In a post I wrote the other day comparing TV series like Breaking Bad to epic novels, I wrote that both "allow for the sorts of narrative digressions and particularized characterization that feature films rarely have room to explore." As luck should have it, one of those rare features is opening in Chicago tomorrow. It's called The Motel Life, and it screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a week. The movie, adapted from a 2006 book by Willy Vlautin, contains a passage that feels particularly novelistic—for about ten minutes, a couple of hitherto minor characters become the film's central concern, only to vanish shortly after. It's the sort of episode that operates like a passing countermelody in a symphony, diverting attention from the primary theme in order to reinforce it.

Frank (Emile Hirsch), a working-poor sad sack in Reno, Nevada, is struggling to get enough money so he and his brother (Stephen Dorff) might buy a different car and get out of town. His brother, Jerry, has accidentally killed a child with his car, and he's afraid of going back to jail. Even their desperate situation—sleeping in their car and occasionally motels—is better than that. But Frank's a naive sort, and he puts his faith in a gambling-addict buddy (Joshua Leonard, in the movie's brightest performance) to bet a few hundred dollars of his money on a boxing match. The lovely digression starts when they wait for the match to unfold. Frank and his buddy decide to watch it at a low-rent casino, taking along a schizophrenic guy (coscreenwriter Noah Harpster) they know from the bar.

Directors Gabe and Alan Polsky stretch out the episode for all they can—not just for suspense, but for comedy and even a bit of pie-eyed wonder. Compared to the dingy interiors and forbidding landscapes we've gotten used to seeing, the casino feels like a carnival. Tommy, the gambling addict, is in his element here. His enthusiasm seems to influence the filmmaking—the sequence kicks into gear with an extended Steadicam shot across a room and up a flight a stairs, recalling Brian De Palma movies at their most ingratiating. This is a tawdry version of joy, all right, but the film asks us to experience it as the characters might—which is to say, in earnest.

I won't reveal how the episode concludes, suffice it to say that The Motel Life soon returns to the more downbeat tone it had established earlier. Frank organizes his life around helping Jerry, an unemployed depressive of limited intelligence with half of one leg missing. Their relationship is often poignant—thanks, in no small part, to Hirsch and Dorff, two actors who've become increasingly resonant on-screen presences as they've aged and grown less pretty. At the same time, something about their story strains credibility. It isn't that they've experienced so many hardships (the brothers were teenage runaways; Frank, in early adulthood, was in love with a girl being sexually abused by her mother), but that the narrative piles them on in such a way that the characters seem practically crushed beneath them.

It's a rather self-conscious approach to novelistic storytelling, one that's familiar from much contemporary U.S. fiction (Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Safran Foer are two authors who come immediately to mind). And sure enough, The Motel Life is also explicitly about telling stories—Frank makes them up compulsively, and the movie often illustrates his tall tales with animated sequences. (These passages reminded me of Martin McDonagh's 2003 play The Pillowman, which also evokes the spirit of pop-postmodern literature.) These sequences can feel overly precious, yet they keep the movie—whose subject matter is doubly sad for being so commonplace—from becoming a downer. In its best moments, The Motel Life reaches the sort of sweet-and-sour tone that's much easier to achieve in writing than it is in movies. I don't want to overrate the film, but I admire how it engages in conversation with recent literature. Where typical literary adaptations restrict their focus to narrative content, this film places as much emphasis on literary tone and structure.

When I tried to think of points of reference in American cinema, I came up with Philip and Belinda Haas's adaptation of Paul Auster's The Music of Chance (1993), Alison Maclean's film of Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son (1999), and Julian Goldberger's movie version of Harry Crews's The Hawk Is Dying (2006). None of those movies developed substantial followings, which leads me to suspect that Motel Life won't either. I hope I'm wrong, though, and that more American filmmakers will engage in conversation with American authors.

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