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'The Motel Life' explores brotherly love in a seedy, sad setting

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "The Motel Life," a gritty brotherhood drama that plays out among the down and out in Nevada's seedy underbelly, begins and ends with the inevitable: death.
/ Source: Reuters

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "The Motel Life," a gritty brotherhood drama that plays out among the down and out in Nevada's seedy underbelly, begins and ends with the inevitable: death.

In between it is open to interpretation, says its soft-spoken star Emile Hirsch, who plays Frank, the bright and devoted younger brother to the emotionally troubled Jerry Lee, portrayed by Stephen Dorff.

"You could say it's a nihilist drama about the inevitability of sadness or you could view it as an uplifting story about how love for your brother transcends time and space," Hirsch said in an interview.

The independent film directed by brothers Alan and Gabriel Polsky will be released in the United States on Friday, a year after its debut at the Rome Film Fest, where it won the audience award as well as best screenplay and cinematography prizes.

The film is based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin.

It tells the story of the fatherless and heavy-drinking Flannigan brothers who drift from motel to motel in Nevada after their mother's death when they are young, scraping by with odd jobs.

"It didn't really matter about what material possessions they had," said Hirsch, who is best known for his role as hiker Christopher McCandless in the acclaimed 2007 biopic "Into the Wild." "Even though they were in hard-luck circumstances, they both stuck up for each other."

The brothers' lives are shaken once more when Jerry Lee accidentally hits and kills a teenage cyclist during a snowstorm in Reno, Nevada. Panicked, he dumps the body near a hospital and flees.


Crushed with guilt, Jerry Lee shoots himself in the leg, and his indefinite hospital stay forces Frank to dream up another escape from their troubles, all before the Reno police close in.

Hirsch said the main challenge he faced in playing Frank, who pushes the film's action along, was the character's laconic nature and the film's sparse dialogue.

"He's limited by not talking a lot, so it was sort of like, 'How can I make this character who doesn't really talk that much - how can I find my way into him that's interesting or bring him to life that the author intended?'" Hirsch said.

The film punctuates its action with animated vignettes that center around Frank's storytelling gift, one that he often uses to cheer Jerry Lee with tall tales of a glorified, imagined past of their parents and their own indigent life on the road.

"They live in such a rudimentary hopeless lifestyle," Hirsch said. "To them, life can be sort of mundane ... and I feel like Frank's stories are sort of like the gatekeeper to the world of hope and imagination for Jerry Lee."

Frank's stories juxtapose life how the brothers live it - hand to mouth and, often, bottle to lips - with life how they desire it.

"He's sort of able to weave these tales that take them out of this place," Hirsch added.

The brother's final escape takes them to the gold mining town of Elko, Nevada. It is perhaps a hideout for Jerry Lee, but also a point of desire for Frank, who seeks to rekindle a life with his old flame, Annie, played by Dakota Fanning.

"The movie is really sad at the end, but I think that for some people there's a happiness, a catharsis that they loved each other the way that they did," Hirsch said.

(Editing by Mary Milliken and Paul Simao)