‘Frank’ examines artistic madness
Matt McMahon | Monday, November 10, 2014
The Irish comedy-drama film “Frank” opens with the motivated but incredibly boring day-to-day of main character Jon (Domhnall Gleeson). The camera follows him from his room, to his work, to his town, while he practically forces inspiration for his songwriting dream out of everything around him, or rather, the nothing around him. His talents are laughable, and his attempts at profundity are as trite as a pop song’s chorus consisting solely of “Oohs” and “Ohs.” But when he stumbles upon an underground band in desperate need of a keyboardist for a local show, he jumps at the opportunity, hoping to immerse himself in the music he so wishes to be able to create.
Jon gets even more than he yearned for though and more than he can handle, as the leader of the band recruits him permanently after the show ends because two members quickly storm off in a fight. The leader of the band is Frank (Michael Fassbender), a man who wears a paper-mâché-looking, face-like mask at all times and only uses the name Frank. The film rapidly introduces its titular character and his band shrouded in bizarre quirk and mystery. Their band name is unpronounceable — The Soronprfbs — and their avant-garde sound is indiscernible — heavily influenced by musicians like Captain Beefheart. Jon, unable to penetrate their music or their odd personalities, looks in from the outside once the band moves into a cabin to craft their debut album. Still, he is enamored with Frank’s presence: the lead singer emits a strange humanity and confident assuredness, plus a certain musical genius that Jon can only dream of possessing.
The other members of The Soronprfbs are just as eccentric and intriguing as Frank, but much less accessible. They include a detached drummer (Carla Azar), a condescending French-speaking bassist (François Civil) and an aggressive synth and theremin player (Maggie Gyllenhall). Also with them is Don (Scoot McNairy), the band’s seriously flawed, yet open and inviting, manager. Jon watches their erratic behavior and assesses that creative brilliance comes from trouble and tragedy. He completely submerses himself thereafter, hoping for a spark in his own talents as a result of his insane surroundings.
As such, Jon sees Frank in part as a mentor, who is able to write a heartfelt song about the tuft in a chair’s upholstery, and in part as a gateway to his own fame, trying to ride his ingenuity’s coattails. Jon’s outsider perspective provides a base for the comedy, allowing the audience to meet the band’s odd members along with him, while already knowing how much he doesn’t fit in. The film charms in its upfrontness to its material, treating the naturally absurd with a rare curtness that deserves recognition.
Once Jon starts to descend into the madness he so welcomes, the tone shifts considerably in the film’s last third. Jon’s underlying attempts to exploit Frank for his own musical gains rise to the surface, and Frank’s issues come to a head, so to speak. However, the script plants roots for these dramatic elements in the first hour that, once noticed, maintain the film’s consistency. Besides, it handles both the comedic and dramatic so deftly that any of its time spent focusing on either, or any combination of the two, makes sense in the movie’s universe.
As Frank, Michael Fassbender gives a career-affirming performance. He commands in the role despite the limitation of not having a real face with which to act, relying on an excellent vocal and physical performance. His nuanced body language establishes the role’s extraordinary visionary tendencies, but continues to suggest an off-kilter, damaged psyche. Meanwhile, Jon proves a worthy peer to his eccentric bandmates through Gleesons’s steady character progression, and he proves an especially strong counter to Gyllenhall’s conflicted, explosive Clara, vying for control over Frank’s time and skill.
“Frank” flips the assumptions of “troubled genius” with the help of Jon’s metamorphosis over the course of the film. Jon turns out to be the most insane, forcing his way into the band and then trying to achieve control from the outside, despite the utter mundaneness he brings with him. He expects tragedy to be the catalyst for talent, when in actuality it can be just as much a deterrent — and he only discovers this to be the case in an excellent, understated scene late in the film. To bring tragedy upon himself, the film implicitly argues, is crazy and destructive, something no one should willingly do. And, evident in the reverse fashion in which The Soronprfbs become popular, damage does not alone breed talent.