Film Review: Frank
Perhaps the best new actor of the last decade, it’s incredible to think that Michael Fassbender only made his film debut seven years ago in 300. Since then, he’s gained critical respect for his extreme method performances in Hunger, Shame and 12 Years A Slave as well as mainstream success with X-Men: First Class and Prometheus, and despite his relatively short career, he’s already made his mark on cinema history. One reason he’s always received attention and praise is his sheer dedication to every role he plays. In 2008’s Hunger, he lost 14kg to play prisoner Bobby Sands, reducing himself to little more than a skeleton; the film proved to be his breakthrough as he won the BIFA for Best Actor. His second pairing with Steve McQueen, 2011’s Shame, was just as notable as Fassbender went full frontal in some of the most graphic sex scenes put on film, and won yet another BIFA, as well earning a Best Actor Nomination at the BAFTAS. Finally, we come to 2014’s Frank, Lenny Abrahamson’s utterly demented black comedy in which Fassbender dons a large, papier-mâché Frank Sidebottom head and gives one of the most astonishing physical performances in years.
Based loosely on writer Jon Ronson’s time as the keyboard player for Frank Sidebottom’s band, Frank follows untalented, hopeless musician Jon (Domnhall Gleeson) as he gets the chance to record with the avant-garde, deliberately unpronounceable ‘Soronprfbs’. Fronted by the titular Frank (Fassbender), the band also include hostile theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and oddball manager Don (Scoot McNairy), and the first time we see them as a band, they play one song at a gig before falling apart in anger and explosions. They’re a time bomb of a group, and as they move into a cheap Irish shack to record their album, Jon begins to realise he is in way over his head.
If there’s a genuinely stranger, more out-there film than Frank this year, I will be surprised because this is certainly the weirdest mainstream release in a while. To name every single baffling, surreal scene would be difficult, but highlights include Frank’s capturing of the ‘perfect sound’, his “most likeable song ever” and the funniest sex-in-a-pool scene since Showgirls. Despite its limited release and very limited appeal, Frank is possibly the funniest film of the year so far, and its strange surreal streak is what makes it a cut above the usual comedy fare. That, and its high levels of darkness.
Oh yes, be warned; by the end of the film, Frank has covered some genuinely disturbing ground, including mental health issues, nervous breakdowns and suicide. Frank himself is a tragic character, a brilliant musician with social anxieties and deep insecurities who we know from manager Don spent time in a mental hospital and has hidden underneath his mask for years; not to spoil the ending, but the final scene of the film, a simple performance by Frank and his bandmates, is both touching and painful to watch.
If there’s a flaw with the film however, it’s that the tonal shifts into darkness are far too sudden, creating a strange effect in which an oddball comedy suddenly transforms into an uncomfortably harsh drama in an instant. There’s a death scene which comes out of nowhere and rests awkwardly between two ‘whacky’ montages, whilst the entire last section of the film does away with comedy entirely and turns into something vaguely resembling a dramatic re-enactment of The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Despite the title, Frank is really a supporting character; the main focus is on Gleeson’s creatively bereft keyboard player, and there are times when this proves to be a rough choice, as Jon is simply a dull guy surrounded by talent.
Domnhall can be a great actor, as seen both on television in Black Mirror and earlier in the year opposite father Brendan in the best film of 2014 so far, Calvary, but he also has a habit of doing the bumbling, awkward, slightly nerdy Englishman shtick passed down from Hugh Grant years ago. We’ve seen it in the mawkish About Time and he reprises it here to occasionally aggravating effect. Granted, sometimes in the middle of the insanity he makes for a good straight man, but sometimes he makes an extraordinarily crazy film a little bit too ordinary. It doesn’t help that Jon is deliberately irritating, a talentless leech who associates with Frank to try and make a name for himself and take extra credit. Any actor would struggle to fully make the role likeable, and Domnhall makes him somewhat sympathetic, but not always very likeable.
Still, Domnhall gives a mostly solid performance, and Gyllenhaal is also very game. Flailing her arms like a madwoman and saying every line with either vitriol or deadpan sarcasm, she’s almost a twisted version of Frank; outwardly aggressive and violent but actually the most rational and caring member of the group. Still, the clue to the best performance is in the title; Michael Fassbender gives one of the most daring performances by an A-list star in any film in history.
Clearly, Abrahamson is has a perverse sensibility in that he picked one of the most desirable men in the world and covered his head with a giant mask, but this just gives Fassbender the chance to act entirely with his body. The expressionless mask actually appears to take on different emotions throughout the film due to Frank’s awkward stance, eerie stillness or insane dancing. Despite his pretension and demented attitude to music, Fassbender makes Frank loveable with his described facial expressions (“bashful half smile”), strange ticks (showering with the head on, drinking liquefied meals) and slightly saddened slouch. Award voters will neglect Fassbender due to wearing a papier-mâché head for most of the film, but his committed and brave performance deserves a lot of credit.
As previously stated, Frank has limited appeal. Unless you’re a musician or really into music, many of the early recording scenes (and the witty opening scene) will probably be lost to you. If you like your comedies straightforward and obvious, many of Frank’s subtleties and jet black touches will fall on deaf ears. Honestly, even if you’re a Michael Fassbender fan, you may not enjoy not seeing his face on screen all that much. If Frank does appeal to your sense of humour and music, however, you’ll find it to be one of the most enjoyable comedies in years.
Along with a phenomenal performance from Fassbender in the titular role, Frank offers lovely original music, originality, genuine surrealism and tons of great laughs, big and small. Partly deliberately flawed and ramshackle, to show a band falling apart at the seams, Frank is not for everyone and far from perfect, but an immensely entertaining and enjoyable black comedy with a maturity and dramatic depth, as well as an experimental streak, that makes it a cut above any comedy released this year.
By Harry Ford