The sparse poeticism of Portland author Willy Vlautin's debut novel, a sullen depiction of blue-collar American life, is gutted for this overdone film adaptation by directors Alan and Gabriel Polsky. The story follows two down-on-their-luck brothers, Frank (Emile Hirsch) and Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff), who've been on their own since their mother's death. A couple of drunks, they reside in a fleabag motel in downtown Reno, where they work odd jobs and gamble away what little money they make. One snowy night, Jerry Lee barges in on a sleeping Frank and explains that he's just run over and killed a young boy. They hightail it out of town, but eventually wind up back in Reno, where Jerry Lee attempts suicide, leaving him hospitalized. Meanwhile, Frank devises a plan for him and his brother to skip town for good, hoping to stop by nearby Elko to reconnect with his long-lost love, Annie (Dakota Fanning).
Vlautin's story is nonlinear and often looks back to the brothers' childhood, providing fluid commentary on the ways their adult lives are essentially unchanged from their youth. The Polsky brothers replicate this tactic on screen with flashbacks and arty transitions, but the film flatlines at a messy pace because of the frequent shifts in time and space. Stunting the action further are a series of animated sequences that give life to the various yarns Frank spins for the dimwitted Jerry Lee to comfort him in times of duress. In Vlautin's book, these stories are simply weaved into the prose, beautiful in their straightforwardness and vital in depicting the characters as wayward romantics. But the Polskys struggle to integrate this animation into their film. Rather than coalescing to form a unified whole, the flashbacks, animation, and central story simply compete for screen time, leaving the film feeling cluttered with empty affect.
Just as Hirsch and Dorff bring an intense self-awareness to their roles that belies their characters' simple natures, the film's polished formal sheen is an ill fit for the Bukowskiesque milieu of dirty motel rooms, dingy bars, and seedy casinos. The only actor who seems at all in place is a grizzled Kris Kristofferson, who plays a sagacious auto dealer in what amounts to a glorified cameo, but even his role is limited to revealing the story's predictable thematic epiphanies. Cinematographer Roman Vas'yanov's outdoor photography, however, is often stunning. Shooting on actual film and reaping its every benefit, Vas'yanov captures the chilly grandeur of Nevada winters, the frigid temperatures evident in steamy breaths and frozen trees. There's a tremendous amount of thematic potential in these images, but the Polskys, seemingly unsure of how to approach their own film, gloss right over them, leaving them behind for another flashback or distracting animated interstitial.