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Heart, loyalty and courage
on 9 February 2017
Two brothers, mid-20s, who love one another. Father long gone from their lives. Mother recently deceased, leaving them little money soon spent. Their boyhood house gone now too. It was a rental, never owned. Thus, the motel life. That’s where they live now — in motels, cheaper in the long run than apartments with their deposits and rents.
They live in Reno, high-desert country in northern Nevada (elevation: 4,500 ft.). Desert conjures visions of desolation and scorching heat. Yes, it’s desolate, and blazingly hot in summer, but not in winter. The winters are windy, snowy, icy. This adds to the sense of desolation, in landscapes as well as human lives.
The brothers are Jerry Lee and Frank, Jerry Lee the eldest. Was he named after Jerry Lee Lewis, the wild Southern rockabilly rocker? Probably. After Elvis, Jerry Lee was the Man, all youthful angst and teen testosterone. Mod boys emulated him. Frank’s brother Jerry Lee may have been one of these. He’s wild, ragged, drinks. He does women like he does drugs. For kicks, momentary highs. Love never enters into it, pleasure the higher principle.
Frank is different, a drinker but not wild. He’s goodhearted, sensitive. He’s a listener, which means he learns a lot. He knows love. He loved Annie. But Annie’s life was rough and hard too. Her mother was a hooker, her father never around. A parade of men passed through her mother’s apartment. Most were no good. Some abused Annie. Her mother even watched as the abuse went on. Home life was no home. Frank was the best thing she had. He was real, steady, caring. But, ill-equipped, she couldn’t cope with love. She was damaged and injured Frank. She didn’t mean to but did.
Frank still hurts, suffers. Even now he loves her, but life is complex, hard to navigate. He’s unsure what to do with his love now. Besides, Annie isn’t here anymore. She moved to Elko, a distant town in eastern Nevada. She ran away from her mum and former life, the life in Reno that included Frank. Maybe she had to run. Maybe it was the only way she could preserve her sanity. Frank doesn’t know. Their arguments raged riotously before she left. He could have hit her then but didn’t, wouldn’t. Despite everything, he’s a loving being.
He tells stories. He’s good at it. He makes stuff up. His male characters are usually heroic, but not the female ones. The women let their men down. They are not faithful and patient. They leave them stranded.
Jerry Lee loves to hear the tales. He lies on the bed in their motel room, cigarette in mouth, whiskey bottle in hand, urging Frank to speak, to wind up one of them. Frank usually obliges, as both he and Jerry Lee love the escape.
Jerry Lee is an artist, an illustrator. His art is the comic book sort – bold, dramatic, unsubtle lines. He cello-tapes the compositions to the walls. Their motel room is a gallery. Frank loves to wander and look, his eyes shining as he does. The world does not recognise his brother, but Frank does. He adores his creativity, adores him for having and expressing it, adores him for being his brother, his only older brother.
They have each other. It seems like this is all they’ve ever had. Their mother once told them, whatever happens, boys, always stick together. They listened to mum. They knew she was right.
Jerry Lee is crippled. He lost half a leg, his right one. How did it happen? Boyhood hijinks. One day as teenagers they were horsing around near the railway line. An approaching train sounded its horn. Like Butch and Sundance they ran beside it as it passed. They hopped it, or tried. Frank went first and made it. But Jerry Lee was slow. Frank reached for Jerry Lee’s hand. He grasped it but Jerry Lee couldn’t hold on. He slipped. The accident was horrific. Jerry Lee survived the loss of blood, but not the loss of the leg. Hard drinking and self-loathing eventually commenced. No woman loves a cripple, he told himself. So, to compensate, he bought women, women who could care less how he looked as long as he paid, which he did. He envied Frank for Annie. She was a handful, he knew it, but he also knew Frank loved her and knew what such love confers on others. Frank would change her, settle her down, redeem her. Love was the key. Jerry Lee may even have loved Annie a little for trying to love his brother. They had a cherished thing. Jerry Lee told Frank as much. He said so with tears in his eyes.
Something happens. An accident. Someone is hurt. Jerry Lee is not to blame, but he blames himself. He’s afraid, decides to run. He drives his car into the desert and burns it. Then, filled with self-remorse for the accident, takes a handgun and tries to end his life. But he only wounds himself. It’s a cry for help, an act of desperation, as many failed suicides are.
Jerry Lee is hospitalised and Frank is there for him. He comes every day to be with him. They talk. They plan an escape. Gradually the cops become interested in Jerry Lee. Where’s your car? Stolen, you say? We found it burned in the desert. You didn’t drive it there?
Frank must form the plan of escape for Jerry Lee. Trouble is, he has no money, or very little. He goes to a mate, a gambler. Reno is filled with gamblers. And prostitutes. It’s Las Vegas on a smaller scale, but it’s the same — gaudy, crass, seedy, an empty place of hunger and fantasy. Frank has only $250. That’s it, his everything. He doesn’t even have a car, and how can you do anything in America without a car? Especially escape. So the gambler mate says this: Take the money and lay down a bet for us and I’ll give you my car keys.
The bet is on Buster Douglas to beat Mike Tyson. Buster is the underdog but the gambler friend has a feeling. This is Buster’s night, he says. He’ll knock out Tyson.
Really? Is it possible? It was, as life transpires, and he did. Frank and the friend collect their winnings. Frank’s now got more than $9,000. Easy come, easy go. At least for the gambler friend, because the next we see of him he’s drinking and smoking at the craps table, sizing up his chips. He’ll lose it all, his share, we think. That has to be. That’s the way he is.
Frank’s different. He has a plan. He’s prudent. He’ll be a commando and rescue Jerry Lee from the hospital. He succeeds. He has bought a car — an old Dodge Dart, a four-door. It’s big enough to sleep in. He’s also acquired a dog, a large gentle black retriever. Jerry Lee loves the dog. It licks his face in the backseat. They become fast friends.
The open road, America at its best. Its glory, its beautiful landscapes, the cold-blue pristine sky, the distant white mountains covered with snow. The road goes on forever, or feels like it. But eventually they pull into Elko (pop. 18,000) and find a motel.
Jerry Lee is still not well. He’s feverish and shivers. He shot his leg with the handgun, the bum leg he hates. The wound hasn’t healed. In fact, it festers. He’s in pain and kills it with whiskey. Frank chug-a-lugs from the bottle too. Annie is somewhere near but they’ve yet to meet. What will happen when they do? Franks feels fragile at the thought of her. Love craves acceptance, fears rejection, a terrible yin-yang at the heart of the world.
Jerry Lee is helpless. Frank carries him from the bed to the shower. He cleans him there, holds him upright. Jerry Lee is naked, Frank fully dressed. Both are drenched by the warm spray. It’s tender and touching, the care the older brother receives from the younger. Jerry Lee loves him for it and tells him so. He also says, in so many words, find Annie, don’t stop loving.
The film comes from a book, a novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin. He’s not well known. He’s low key, perhaps publicity shy. He writes and sings lyrics for an indie rock band from Portland, Oregon called Richmond Fontaine. Indie rock, sadcore, slowcore, alt country. The music is good, some of which appears in the film. As a writer some critics compare him to Steinbeck. Perhaps in spirit and theme this is valid, but in writerly technique he’s more like Raymond Carver, the short story writer. Short, crisp sentences. Blunt, direct statements. Many nouns, few adjectives. Simple surface above, complex emotion below. The kind of writer Hemingway always praised.
The film mixes mediums. Some rather long sequences of animation appear. Why? I think to show the fantasies of the brothers as well as to paint in background detail from their past. In this sense the film reminds me of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” or “The Wall” by Pink Floyd. Does it work? For me, yes, but for you it remains to be seen, literally so.
Beautiful performances from the three main leads: Emile Hirsch as Frank, Stephen Dorff as Jerry Lee, Dakota Fanning as Annie. Wholly believable people in a cinema that sinks you into it. The film should have won some awards. That it didn’t just means the world is fickle, but of course you knew that anyway. Actually, I’m wrong. It won three awards at the Rome Film Festival in 2012. But Rome is very far away from Reno. Where were the American critics?
Actually, the American underclass isn’t something many wish to see. The people are poor, drunk, drugged, desperate. Or too many of them are. They long for normality but find it difficult to achieve. Money is the foundation of this normality. It’s true everywhere, in every land, but not in how the foundation is laid. The United States is a paradox, a contradiction of itself. First-world state in wealth, third-world state in social services. The gap is wide and widening. President Obama understood and cared about this, did what he could. But the charlatan now in the White House has no such interest.
How do people survive? With heart, loyalty and courage. Frank has these things, so we wish him all the best.