It’s a bit of a contradiction when you walk into a film with no idea of what to expect and walk out somehow disappointed.
This is certainly true in the case of Frank, a quirky little indie dramedy from director Lenny Abrahamson.
Domnhall Gleeson plays Jon, an ordinary guy who dreams of being a musician and escaping from his dull suburban existence. He gets the chance when the keyboardist of visiting band “Soronprfbs” tries to drown himself in the sea while Jon is passing. Coopted into acting as a replacement, Jon finds himself living on a commune in Ireland with a gaggle of volatile misfits.
There’s Don (Scoot McNairy), the group’s twitchy manager; the violent, sardonic Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal); a hip French couple who immediately loathe Jon; and, of course, Michael Fassbender’s Frank.
Frank is enigmatic and inscrutable, largely due to the large papier-mâché head he removes, yet he’s also friendly and charming, a real creative influence on those around him. Unfortunately, Frank can’t decide where to place its focus as a film.
It begins by looking at Jon’s overwhelming feelings of inadequacy, his inability to write decent material, exacerbated by the presence of Frank. Around the midpoint, though, it shifts it focus to Frank himself, deciding to become a study of mental illness.
Already atonal, from this point on the film feels off-key: what few awkward laughs there were vanish as Frank falls to pieces amidst Jon’s attempts to turn the Soronprfbs into a commercially viable venture.
Frank feels like it was made for the sake of those involved. Like the music it documents, it’s hard to imagine the audience this was intended for: it feels more like avant-garde therapy than a marketable film.
Needless to say, all this makes Frank a very hip film to like, though it’s often dark, tense, unlikeable, sometimes borderline excruciating. The characters are mostly alienating and the issue of whose film it is – Jon’s? Frank’s? even Clara’s? – doesn’t help this.
Overall, Frank is just a bit of a downer, one that, too its credit, doesn’t shy away from the issues raised but one that takes refuge in kookiness and obscurity rather than tackle its problems head-on.
Frank might be a likeable character – indeed, Fassbender is the film’s main selling point – but he’s more interesting as a symbol than a person. As soon as the head comes off, the film should end.
For all this disappointment, Frank is still somewhat less than a total disaster. For all its feel-bad qualities, there’s a certain sure-footedness, and, as a film whose failings mirror those of its titular character, it’s even faintly fascinating.