An experimental band with an eccentric lead singer run into internet notoriety.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Starring Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, and Maggie Gyllenhaal
Review by Jon Kissel
Frank's central duo is well-matched in their qualities or lack thereof. Frank is declared a genius by Jon, and the rest of the Soronprfbs are happy to follow his lead, so they must think so, too. The film doesn't really take a side, though it's clear that he is a charismatic showman happy in his own skin/craft materials. He has a calming nature, able to draw people in guilelessly. He also isn't shy about talking about the head, as it's something that just makes sense for him. Jon is Frank's antithesis, insecure in his talent and place in the world while also completely lacking in insight. He is the proverbial child who was always told 'Good job,' unable to see his output for what it is. The film is at its most uncomfortable when Jon is trying to sell the Soronprfbs on his songs. When not cranking out banal tweets, he is depicted toiling over lyrics and scales, while Frank instantly composes an ode to a stray piece of fabric that is light years ahead of anything Jon could hope to achieve. Jon might be free of Frank's compulsion, but he is desperately envious of his new mentor's innate skill.
The bench of interesting characters doesn't end with Frank and Jon. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the key character of Clara, a protector of Frank and a nemesis to Jon. Where Frank is happy for Jon's company, Clara is instantly distrustful, sure that this hack will lead them to ruin. She is an intense presence, taking every opportunity to insult or strike at Jon, never allowing him to forget what she thinks of him. Don, on the other hand, is unstable, recovering from an unhealthy obsession with mannequin legs. He misses his home in Texas, but he so needs Frank's presence that he's willing to spend months in an Irish backwater. The other two members of the band form a Greek chorus, echoing Clara's dismissiveness of Jon and everyone's admiration of Frank.
Because the script, by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, is so detailed in its characterization, worse actors than these could still do a passable job, but everyone here is bringing even more than necessary. Fassbender is incredible, a dramatic actor getting the chance to show off his considerable physical comedy chops, a la Leonardo DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street. Fassbender's so expressive that I could essentially see his face, even when Frank wasn't helpfully describing what kind of expressions he's making beneath the mask. When performing, he energetically works the stage, flitting between bandmates and dancing. When the film takes a melancholy turn and that life starts to cool down, there is a deeply felt loss in the film. Gleeson has the difficult task of making an unlikable character tolerable to watch, and he pulls it out, giving Jon the sad earnestness of someone who can't do any better than he's doing. The audience surrogate into the weird world of the Soronprfbs, he falls in love with Frank at the same pace the viewer does. Gyllenhaal is severe to everyone but Frank, and they share a warm, collaborative relationship. She is convincing throughout, first as an impenetrable wall of concrete and again as cracks in the facade start to appear. Lastly, McNairy is continuously and reliably impressive, one of my favorite, younger character actors. It takes a special talent to make a song to a mannequin leg feel as real and heartfelt as he does.
The themes behind the great writing and characters subverted expectations in a highly welcome way. So many movies rely on quirk to make their characters memorable, without asking what that person might be like in real life, or if they could even exist. Frank plays out that thread to its logical conclusion, throwing in a hefty dose of internet culture on top. As the Soronprfbs gain a level of notoriety, they become a sideshow, drawing clicks based on their novelty and not on their music. Clara can see this coming, Jon turns a willfully blind eye to it, and Frank is incapable of recognizing the truth. It adds a new layer to their dynamic, with Clara and Jon becoming the angel and/or demon on Frank's shoulders. While Ronson's and Straughan's script has a clear eye of Frank, it also knows who Jon is, and it nobly avoids the kind of feel-good ending a lesser film would've indulged in. Jon doesn't find inspiration from his time with these people, wowing the crowd with his new song; songwriting is just not one of his strengths. The film acknowledges his dream is a worthy one, while recognizing that not everyone has the emotional intelligence to pull it off.
Frank takes the viewer on a ride, transitioning between humor and performance and depression effortlessly. This is a synergy between directing, writing, and acting, resulting in an enjoyably deep film from beginning to end. Fassbender remains one of my favorite actors, adding another card to his deck, and Abrahamson marks himself as a director to watch. Frank is one of 2014's best. A