As an exploration of humanity’s creative capacities, Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, is a brilliantly thought-provoking triumph. As a film, however, it is disappointingly lacking, wavering between compelling profundity and inescapably dull self-indulgence throughout, saved by Michael Fassbender’s uniquely laudable performance.
Domhnall Gleeson stars as Jon, a floppy-haired loner living with his parents in some hellishly suburban coastal town in the north, whose desire to achieve musical enlightenment , despite his seemingly boundless enthusiasm, always boils down to re-hashed Madness songs with laughably banal lyrics (‘Woman in the blue dress, what are you doing with that bag?’ and the like).
When a dysfunctional indie band with an unpronounceable name (‘Soronprfbs’) arrive in town in need of a keyboard player, Jon jumps at the chance and finds himself locked away with them in a commune-type camp in Ireland, where they attempt to broaden their creative limits and finally record that life-changing album. Michael Fassbender plays Frank, the band’s leader and the film’s eponymous enigma, who wears a large papier-mâché head at all times. As band manager Don (Scoot McNairy) portentously advises both Jon and the audience, ‘just go with it’.
Gleeson is adept as the loveable fish-out-of-water Jon, but his meekness and compliance are at odds with his strident aim of making the band more ‘likeable’, rendering his character slightly unbelievable. Maggie Gyllenhaal is equally proficient, if unpersuasive, as the irritatingly unwelcoming Clara. The intended chemistry between these two polar opposites is apparently demonstrated sufficiently by annoyingly meaningless terse remarks.
It is Fassbender though, who provides the film’s most memorable performance, despite having his face hidden for the vast majority. His body language and intonation are somehow enough to express a great depth of character. With a hunching of the shoulders, or a tilt of the giant head, Fassbender implies convincing emotion, so much so that the static features of the head’s painted face seemingly come alive on occasion. This is a lesson in subtlety; Frank is paradoxically the most believable and engaging character and his presence provides a much-needed centrality to the film. His habit of speaking his facial expressions (‘flattered grin followed by bashful half-smile’) is a rich seam of humour.
For all Fassbender’s commendable skill, however, the film suffers from a lack of coherence and vagueness brought on by self-indulgence. Too much feeling is left unsaid, too much resentment left implicit. One is never sure whether Jon is liked or not, whether Frank is entirely deranged or not, and what exactly the Abrahamson is trying to do. At first, any disinterest as a result of this flaw is staved off by the film’s inherent quirkiness, but as it progresses, disinterest sporadically materialises as boredom and the captivating novelty wanes away.
That said, several thought-provoking motifs continue to be explored with estimable elegance. The well-known fine line between genius and insanity is prominent, along with the need for anonymity for true creative freedom. The audience’s slow realisation that Gleeson’s patently mediocre yet eternally enthusiastic Jon is the unwitting villain of the piece is delightfully drawn out. It raises questions as to the morality of forcing oneself on more-talented others and neatly crystallises the ‘integrity versus likeability’ debate (whether to ‘sell out’ or not) that underlies the whole film.
Ultimately, Frank suffers from a crisis of identity. It is at times hysterically bizarre, at times remarkably profound and at times regrettably tedious. The originality of the film fades fast, and it is left without much to hold it together, besides Fassbender’s exceptional performance and some compelling, at times emotive central themes.