Frank is the sort of film I don’t really want to write about. Not because it’s not a good film–it’s a very good film, a daring film with a hugely ballsy performance by Michael Fassbender. But because to write about it, to analyze it, is to fall into the trap that the protagonist lunges headfirst into. To be fair, the protagonist here does something far more unsavory, using a band composed of troubled individuals as his ticket to fame, but like him we run the risk of assuming that there is always a method to madness. But sometimes madness is just that.
Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson) is an aspiring songwriter living in a small Welsh town, who is filled with ideas for songs but never seems able to bring them to fruition. One day, he sees a man trying to drown himself in the ocean, who turns out to be the keyboardist for the band Soronprfbs (and no, we never learn how that’s supposed to be pronounced). The band’s manager Don (Scoot McNairy) asks Jon to fill in on the keyboard at their gig that evening. On arriving at the show, Jon sees the band’s frontman, Frank (Fassbender), who wears a giant false head at all times. The gig falls apart almost immediately as Frank seems to have a meltdown on stage.
Not long afterwards, Don contacts Jon and tells him that Frank would like him to join the band at their rural retreat. Jon assumes this will be a short-term matter, but they wish to record their new album, and Frank does not want to record until they are ready. The other members of the band–Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who plays the theremin and is protective of Frank; Baraque (François Civil), the French guitarist; and Nana (Carla Azar), the drummer–are suspicious of Jon and are slow to accept him. Jon learns that most of the other band members have spent time in psychiatric hospitals, including Frank.
Despite the band’s troubles, Jon is convinced they have the potential to make it big, and puts videos of their creative process on YouTube, garnering a modest number of views. Months pass, however, and the band is no closer to recording. At one point they run out of money and are about to lose their retreat to a vacationing family, but Frank convinces them to cede their claim and Jon offers up his savings to keep them going. However, although Frank likes him, the others remain distant. Finally, Jon plays a tune of his own during rehearsal which Frank and Clara develop into a song (Jon sulks that the band isn’t using any of his compositions), and the band is able to record an album.
Shortly afterwards, Don kills himself, just as Jon announces that he has booked them to play at SXSW. They make the trip to Austin (they pause to scatter Don’s ashes in the desert and discover they brought a can of protein mix by mistake), and are told that their supposed YouTube celebrity will amount to little real-life interest. Conflicts develop, and the band starts to fall apart; Clara stabs Jon in the leg, which brings them additional notoriety, but she, followed by Baraque and Nana, leave. Frank is doubtful about performing without them, but Jon convinces him to, telling him of their ever-growing following. They take the stage, and Jon immediately starts singing one of his own songs, which prompts the bewildered Frank to collapse.
Taking to the road, with their finances dwindling, Jon and Frank have an argument during which Jon tries to remove Frank’s head. Frank flees and is hit by a car, losing the head but escaping before Jon can see his face. Jon seeks Frank via social media, without luck; he finds Clara, Baraque and Nana playing in a bar, but they have little advice to offer. Finally, Jon tracks Frank down to his hometown of Bluff City, Kansas, finding him at his parents’ house. They reveal that Frank has been wearing heads since he was young as a means of dealing with his social anxiety.
Frank is very shy and withdrawn, and admits to Jon that he can no longer produce music. Jon takes Frank back to the others, where he joins them in performing. Jon returns home alone.
I find myself wondering why I don’t consider Frank a **** film. Leaving aside the fact that I am almost certainly too obsessed with rating and ranking films, I’d argue that Frank is best suited to be a ***½ film–that to achieve **** would generally require a kind of completeness or accomplishment that would run totally contrary to its very nature. Frank is about people who have accomplished nothing appreciable, but who in the process of trying to accomplish it have found some solace, some distraction from their inner turmoil. But when they are forced to control their energies and conform to the world’s idea of what they should be–as represented by Jon’s ambitions–their fragile construct collapses.
Have you ever known someone who, whenever you tried to take their picture, they’d obscure their face? It’s not a perfect comparison, but that sort of determined elusiveness lies at the heart of Frank. While the people I have known who obscured their faces were not as disturbed as Frank was, perhaps that same desire not to be bottled or pinned down also dwelt in them, even if only temporarily. I’m reminded of the Ukrainian philosopher Skovoroda, who supposedly wished his epitaph to be “The world tried to catch me, but it wasn’t able.”
And yet here is Jon, who tries to use Soronprfbs as his meal ticket, but who is unwilling or unable to see that the band’s very existence is something of a miracle; the member trying to drown himself at the start of the film may not have been the first member to come and go, and we later learn that Don was once the keyboardist–and his ultimate successor, Jon, likewise leaves the band, though in his case out of a realization that he does not belong.
Thought-provoking though it is, perhaps by design Frank crumbles a bit under scrutiny. Its message is more or less discernible, but other parts of it don’t add up. Nearly a year passes before the album is recorded, and we have little to show for it; we never really hear the finished album (in fact, I can only recall hearing one fully finished Soronprfbs song in the whole film–more on that later); we’re not always sure how certain events happened or even where certain events take place. The story fragments and crumbles, and while it’s never incoherent or really confusing, it resists easy categorization, and it doesn’t play out quite how you’d expect (maybe the resolution is a little predictable, but that’s about it).
If I had to pick a concrete flaw with the film, it’d probably be the occasional dry patches; some have felt the third act is a major letdown, but I’d argue that the film tends to meander throughout, sometimes to a mildly tedious degree. Usually not, but even at its relatively short length (95 minutes or so), Frank feels just a little padded at times–or at least it does not always focus its attention where you might prefer it to. But such is the nature of the beast.
There’s still more than enough good things here to recommend Frank to any remotely interested party. The film’s sheer daring–it could have easily become an offensive portrayal of mental illness, or a one-joke bore–is enough to earn my appreciation, but that it manages to be as thought-provoking and compelling as it is took some real skill and care on the part of director Lenny Abrahamson; I haven’t seen any of his other films, but he’s adapting the novel Room, which sounds like a promising enough project (Brie Larson is playing the female lead and the author of the book wrote the script. Yeah, I’m keeping an eye out for that). He’s one to keep an eye out for.
Abrahamson handles the film with the right kind of…
You know, I could say a lot of things there. “Symapthetic awkwardness”. “Uncomfortable boldness”. Whatever you like, it’s all really bullshit. Abrahamson understands the material and gives it the touch it needs. Sometimes you can’t put these things into words.
As much credit must go to the screenplay by Jon Ronson (who wrote The Men Who Stare at Goats) and Peter Straughan (who co-wrote the excellent script for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). They supply plenty of wonderfully bizarre dialogue (“Please stop saying your facial expressions out loud. It’s very annoying.”), but leaven it with a poignant awareness of just how troubled the members of Sonorprfbs are, and just how profoundly Jon’s ambitions impact them. Arguably the key to the whole film is the climactic scene where Jon meets Frank’s parents and learns that his troubles have been present for years. He suggests that Frank was a “tormented genius”, but his parents counter that his illness severely hindered his productivity–puncturing Jon’s romantic vision of Frank and his colleagues, bringing us back down to the painful, human truth.
But as good as the writing and directing were, if the cast wasn’t able to bring these characters to life, the whole thing would collapse. Luckily, the cast is uniformly strong. Though Frank is the titular character, Jon is definitely the lead, and Gleeson doesn’t sugarcoat what a little shit he is–when he hijacks the SXSW performance, you really want to smack him, when in another context you’d be cheering. But he doesn’t make Jon a stock SOB, and even if you don’t like him, you can understand him. It’s a fine line between extreme naiveté and obnoxious opportunism, but Gleeson successfully treads it.
Fassbender has arguably the trickiest role, since Frank could’ve become an empty gimmick or a caricature. But with the mask on, he’s eerily compelling, full of enthusiasm and good cheer that boils over into chaos. Sometimes he makes magic–when a German family comes to inhabit Sonorprfbs’ retreat, he takes the wife on a walk (that he speaks perfect German helps), and we see them twirling around in a sweet little dance, and it’s a really lovely moment. Other times, though, the madness gets ahold of him, sometimes in little ways, like his describing his facial expressions for Jon’s benefit, and sometimes in big ways–his onstage tantrum at the start, his descent into mania at SXSW, his frantic escape from Jon after everything has gone to pieces–and Fassbender pulls it all off superbly.
And in the last stages of the film, when we see Frank without his mask, Fassbender is properly, understatedly shattered, an impressive makeup job showing the scars which years of wearing his mask have left. In the end, reunited with his friends and singing the great “I Love You All”, he shows just how vital the act of making music is to him. It’s not Fassbender’s greatest performance, but for him to, at this point in his career, play such a bizarre, potentially disastrous character, is a truly ballsy act, and I give him all the credit in the world for it.
The rest of the cast is quite good, though none dominate the film like Gleeson and Fassbender. Gyllenhaal is arguably underserved by the script; she clearly has a close bond with Frank, possibly more so than anyone else, and she’s arguably what keeps the band together. She doesn’t get as much to do as I would’ve liked, but she’s constantly, dryly funny (“Keep away from my fucking theremin”), and rounds out the cast well. McNairy (whom I initially thought was Peter Sarsgaard) is also strong, giving an efficient portrait of a profound, yet buried psychosis. Civil and Azar have relatively little to do, but they’re fine.
Naturally, music is a big part of the film, and Stephen Rennicks’ score is marvelous. The light, chirpy underscoring not only helps ground the film in the modern indie scene, but it heightens the contrast between fantasy and reality that lies at the heart of the film. And the songs are great, too, what we hear of them, in their own way, but then we get to the great final scene, with the band reunited, making music once again, and Frank delivering the (improvised?) lyrics in his droning baritone, with the refrain “I Love You All”–a message to the band, probably, and possibly the whole world. It’s a great song, both at being the kind of outsider pop (or whatever movement it best fits into) it’s intended to be, and at just being a damnably catchy tune.
The sound mixing is also excellent, from the opening scenes of Jon writing lyrics in his head based on what he sees, to the chaos made by Sonorprfbs makes in the studio and onstage. James Mather’s cinematography is solid; Nathan Nugent’s editing could have maybe been a little tighter, but it adds to the film’s off-kilter feel.
I just want to finish by saying it makes me very happy that we live in a time when a film like Frank can be made with the cast and resources it needs, and be received as the excellent film it is, where once upon a time it would have been as marginalized as its characters. It’s got its faults, but Frank is a film you ought to see.