The Motel Life (film)

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The Motel Life
The Motel Life film.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Alan Polsky
Gabriel Polsky
Produced by Alan Polsky
Gabriel Polsky
Ann Ruark
Screenplay by Noah Harpster
Micha Fitzerman-Blue
Based on The Motel Life 
by Willy Vlautin
Starring Emile Hirsch
Stephen Dorff
Dakota Fanning
Kris Kristofferson
Music by Keefus Ciancia
David Holmes
Cinematography Roman Vasyanov
Edited by Hughes Winborne
Polsky Films
Distributed by Random Media
Release date(s)
  • November 16, 2012 (2012-11-16) (Roma Film Festival)
  • November 8, 2013 (2013-11-08)
Running time 90 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English

The Motel Life is a 2012 American mystery thriller film starring Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff, Dakota Fanning, and Kris Kristofferson. Directed and produced by brothers Alan and Gabriel Polsky, the screenplay was adapted by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue from Willy Vlautin's novel of the same name. The film was shot in Reno and Virginia City and also features animated sequences drawn by Mike Smith.


Frank and Jerry Lee Flannigan work odd jobs, drink hard, and drift from motel to motel. Their only escape is through Frank's fantastic stories and Jerry Lee's rich illustrations. Everything changes when Jerry Lee is involved in a hit-and-run accident, which forces the brothers across the state to the home of Frank's old flame, Annie James. While the two seem safe from the law, Jerry Lee's insatiability and all-consuming guilt render their future increasingly uncertain. Like an outlaw country song, this directorial debut from real-life brothers Gabe & Alan Polsky finds beauty and hope in a world of casinos, gun shops, dive bars, and in the simple people who inhabit them.



The Polskys first cast Emile Hirsch, but were unsure Stephen Dorff fit the role of Jerry Lee. Dorff convinced them when he agreed to test with Emile, who he had met years before at a party with the premonition: "I think we're going to play brothers one day."[2]

The Polskys opted to shoot on location in Reno during the winter months, housing the cast and crew in casino hotels. This was the first American feature film for cinematographer Roman Vasyanov, who shot on 35mm and was lauded by critics for his "gorgeous snow-flecked cinematography."[3] Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal added, "It's admirable and even memorable, in its moody fashion, thanks to Roman Vasyanov's richly textured cinematography—he's a shooter to keep our eyes on."[4]

One of the more unique touches was the filmmakers' decision to employ animated artwork by Portland, Oregon-based animator Mike Smith, who worked on the animation in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. Werner Herzog noted how flawlessly the animation was interwoven into the live-action story, "You do not jump across an abyss."[5]


The Motel Life premiered at the Rome Film Festival in 2012 where it won the Audience Award, Best Screenplay, Best Editing, and the Critics Award. It went on to play at the Mill Valley Film Festival, the Chicago International Film Festival, the Philadelphia Film Festival, and the Woodstock Film Festival. The film opened in select theaters, on iTunes, and Video on Demand on November 8, 2013. You can stream it online at Amazon and iTunes.


In 2012, The Motel Life received three awards out of four nominations at the Rome Film Festival. Hughes Winborne and Fabienne Rawley won Associazione Italiana Montaggio Cinematografico e Televisivo (AMC) Award, Gabe and Alan Polsky won the Audience Award and Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue won Best Screenplay. Gabe and Allan Polsky were also nominated for the Golden Marc'Aurelio Award.

Werner Herzog hosted a special screening of the film at The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and expressed his admiration for the Polskys' directorial debut, stating, "It's really an accomplishment of two young filmmakers...You see a portion of America you have never seen in movies."[5] Kristofferson told a crowded room at Cinefamily that The Motel Life is the finest film he's ever been in.[6]


The film was warmly received by critics and audiences across the country. Specifically, critics have hailed this as Dorff's best performance of his career. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote, "Striking. Tinged with humor and heartbreak. Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff are outstanding, engaged and enthralling."[7] Sheila O'Malley of wrote, "A beautifully warm film with a very kind heart. Every frame feels right, every choice feels thought-out, considered. All adds up to a heartbreaking whole. Stephen Dorff's performance is a damn near masterpiece of pathos."[8]

Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal wrote, "Admirable and memorable in its moody fashion."[4] The New York Times wrote, "If this sounds like an outlaw-country ballad, it should. The performances and ambiance resonate."[9] Indiewire wrote, "A perfectly formed Indie with a heart of gold. Emile Hirsch does a terrific job. Stephen Dorff will break your heart."[10] The film has a 72% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes; the general consensus states: "The Motel Life transcends its frustratingly uneven screenplay with some outstanding work from a talented cast."[11]


  1. "Fit to Be Tied" by Jonathan Clay
  2. "Roll 'Em Dice" by Lee Silver
  3. "Oil Can" by Joe D'Augustine
  4. "Drifting Apart" by Marty Stuart
  5. "They Killed John Henry" by Justin Townes Earle
  6. "250 Miles" by Parker Griggs (Radio Moscow)
  7. "Wait" by James Hince & Alison Mossha (The Kills)
  8. "In Cold Blood" by Jack Shaindlin
  9. "Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold" by Townes Van Zandt
  10. "Give 'Em Hell" by Anthony Catalano, Celeste Spina (Little Hurricane)
  11. "Prairie Saga" by Raymond Beaver
  12. "Reverse Harmonics" by Joe D'Augustine
  13. "Dark Horse" by Brandy St. John
  14. "Girl from the North Country" by Bob Dylan
  15. "The Boyfriends" by Willy Vlautin, Sean Oldham, Dave Harding (Richmond Fontaine)


External links[edit]