Review: Frank (2014)

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Frank is a curious film about a motley group of artists struggling to find a voice through their music. Most people will be drawn to the film for its overt quirkiness, which it undoubtedly revels in. For example, the title character, Frank (Michael Fassbender), wears a giant papier-mâché head for the majority of the film. But beneath the quirky exterior lies a contemplative centre. Here is a film concerned with what makes an artist and whether sanity and creativity can coexist. The oddball aspects of the musicians makes the film fun to watch, but there’s a soul to all this that makes Frank more than just another cute indie.

The film’s lead character is John, (Domhnall Gleeson), an aspiring musician living with his parents in a cozy British town. He works at an office and spends his free time composing music. In the film’s humourous opening John tries to get inspiration from the city around him and fails pathetically, coming up with nothing more interesting than merely describing the things he sees such as a lady wearing a red dress walking down the street. While watching a crazed man try to drown himself in the ocean, John meets Don (Scoot McNairy), the manager for an avante-garde band, who needs a keyboardist to fill in for the deranged lunatic trying to off himself. John agrees, and winds up unofficially joining the band consisting of two French musicians (François Civil and Carla Azar) who don’t speak English unless it suits them, the prickly Theremin player, Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and the band’s leader, the enigmatic Frank, who wears a large fake head on stage and off.

John’s adventures with the band, which is named the impossible-to-pronounce Soronprfbs, eventually leads him to the SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas, but the majority of the film is devoted to their attempts to produce an album at a secluded cabin in Ireland. At the cabin tensions run high, the months plod on without a completed album, and Frank inspires the rest of the band with his so-called genius. Early on in the film, Frank wows John by composing a short ode to a stray strand of carpet. John takes this as confirmation of Frank’s immense talent, born out of what John assumes to be a tortured childhood and his peculiar brand of eccentricities.

Of course, the truth of Frank’s talent is much more complicated, but the film doesn’t get to that until spending plenty of time reveling in the strangeness of the band. Frank seems to draw inspiration from the most insignificant aspects of cabin life, from the sounds of rocks falling on the forest floor to his amusing fascination with the squeaking of the screen doors. Fassbender, whose face is hidden for the majority of the film, never lets Frank become a caricature or impenetrable to the viewer. He’s impressive at conveying Frank’s emotional state through the character’s physicality, especially during the film’s few musical numbers.

Frank is hardly the only strange member of the band. The French members do nothing but brood and smoke. Clara does nothing but spew vile at John. Even the non-musician Don is an oddball, unable to let go of his mannequin fetish. Director Lenny Abrahamson and the talented cast have a lot of fun playing around with the characters’ eccentricities. Although this section is light on narrative weight, it’s gives the film its fleet, good-natured feeling.

But then the band heads to America and everything gets more interesting. This light, good-natured film gets some dramatic weight. As the date for their performance at SXSW nears, the band members’ eccentricities reveal themselves to be insecurities. Frank’s strangeness is shown to be mental illness. The film starts to explore that supposed link between madness and creativity. John believes that creativity is only possible through instability, but the film wisely shows that the matter is more complicated. It brings insight into a topic that most films are content to reduce to an easy cliché.

That doesn’t mean Frank is a perfect film. Director Abrahamson is good with the actors and clearly created a calm environment on set for them to play, but he lacks visual wit. The shots and camera moves don’t reflect the oddness of the characters. He overly relies on montage to convey the passage of time and the emotional transformation of characters.

All this keeps Frank from being great. It tackles some interesting themes in surprising ways, but it is still too indebted to that unimaginative Sundance-style of independent filmmaking to be anything genuinely essential. It’s clever and strange and more than a little profound, but only in its final moments does it ever become powerful.

7 out of 10

Frank (2014, Ireland/UK)

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson; written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, based on an article by Jon Ronson; starring Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, Carla Azar, François Civil, and Michael Fassbender.

This article was originally posted on The Rooster (therooster.ca), Spareparts' now-defunct community culture blog.