Life’s a relentless ass-kick for the Flannigan brothers, Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) and younger sibling, Frank (Emile Hirsch). Dorff and Hirsch, by the way, are outstanding, engaged and enthralling. These lost boys saw their mother waste away from cancer, and the only memory of runaway dad is a gold-plated rifle he left behind. Frank’s a recovering drunk. And Jerry Lee lost a leg hopping a train. Their life is a road trip of sleazebag motels. Yet Frank writes stories that imagine the brothers as adventure heroes. And Jerry Lee makes drawings with contours that are larger than life.
It’s seems fitting that Alan and Gabriel Polsky, brothers themselves, would choose Willy Vlautin’s 2006 novel to make their debut as directors. And a striking debut it is. The relationship between brothers is a rich way to examine the bonds and betrayals of siblings. Working from a script by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, the Polskys burrow into the secret places formula Hollywood avoids. Good on them. If all the flashbacks, drawings and verbalizing don’t quite cohere, the emotions do. Harsh reality forces the brothers to split from their lives in Reno, Nevada, where Frank works for a car dealer (Kris Kristofferson, in a sharply affecting turn). Jerry Lee has been involved in a hit and run. So the boys bolt from the law, stopping in Elko, Nevada, where Frank reconnects with Annie James (a lovely Dakota Fanning), the girl he let get away. Hirsch opens his heart to the role. And Dorff, matching the depth of feeling he showed in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, excels at digging deep into Jerry Lee’s pain. One scene, where Frank helps his brother to shower, is tinged with humor and heartbreak. The Polskys are painting a portrait of life on the margins, of broken people redeemed at least partially by art.