Willy Vlautin’s one of my favorite writers, and The Motel Life is one of my favorite books. I’ve been looking forward to this. I was also worried that they’d run it off the rails somehow.
I’m happy to report that the Polskys did a solid job with it. It’s a very good movie, almost great, and while it doesn’t live up to the book, it’s faithful as hell and doesn’t misfire in any major ways.
A few things I didn’t like/wasn’t sure about:
1. The score. It was intrusive, and I didn’t like the way it worked so heavily in the background like someone breathing all over the movie. It especially bothered me in the flashback scene between Earl and Frank. They just should’ve had Vlautin & Paul Brainard do something instead.
2. The music overall was problematic. Even great songs from Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan felt a little out of place. Music is so key in the book, and I feel like that’s totally missing from the film. They had a ready-made soundtrack with Richmond Fontaine’s The Fitzgerald – it would’ve been great to see that used. And we needed some Willie Nelson.
3. I don’t know why they switched Tyson-Holyfield to Tyson-Douglas. Having just read Tyson’s memoir, that stood out as being particularly problematic. I just don’t see anyone betting against an undefeated Tyson – it doesn’t make sense to bet Douglas in the way that betting Holyfield makes sense. It also switches the action from 1996 to 1990, which doesn’t seem right.
4. The place stuff was good but could’ve been better. I didn’t feel Reno as much as I do in the book.
5. The ending is missing something – I’m not sure what, but it doesn’t FEEL like the ending of the book. I won’t be specific in the interest of avoiding spoilers, but if you love the book you’ll know what I mean.
A few things I really liked:
1. Dakota Fanning as Annie James. This surprised me most of all. I thought she was perfect. She had down the feel of the character as Vlautin made her and was exactly what I pictured. And the Polskys handled Annie and Frank’s backstory effectively.
2. Kris Kristofferson as Earl Hurley. Goddamnit, he’s the best.
3. Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff are damn good as the Flannigan Brothers. Dorff is a little old for Jerry Lee, but that’s a minor thing. Hirsch is one of the most consistent young actors around – between this and Prince Avalanche, my opinion of him is even higher.
4. The animation worked. I wondered how they could possibly get that part of the book down – Frank telling stories to Jerry Lee – and I thought that animation was a smart route to go. Reminded me a little of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys.
Overall, the film was way more than I thought it’d be. There’s a certain tension that comes with seeing a book you love adapted. I’m relieved that the Polskys approached it as an act of love – it shouldn’t be lost on us that this sad and hopeful story about brothers was directed by brothers. It’s not a Hollywood whorehouse movie. It’s dark and true and real. Most importantly, it taps into the tone and spirit of the book.