Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014): Absurd and Sweet

Sitting down to watch Frank last week, I realised I knew absolutely nothing about it except that it featured Michael Fassbender wearing a cartoon-like fake head. I wasn’t particularly intrigued by that, and I chose to watch it primarily because there was nothing else on Netflix that grabbed me at that moment – the same reasoning for most of the films I end up watching. It is slightly refreshing to watch a film that you haven’t seen a review or trailer for and it’s something I try and do once in a while. With Frank, I’m incredibly thankful that I had no expectations of the film and if you haven’t seen it yourself I suggest you stop reading instead of spoiling it for yourself.

Frank tells the story of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) a wannabe musician. A social networking fiend, bored of his office job and of living with his parents, Jon somehow manages to land a gig with a band touring the local area (definitely a ‘right place, right time’ situation. The current keyboardist tries to drown himself and Jon happens to play the keyboard). The band itself, the unpronounceable ‘Soronpfrbs’, are a mixed bag led by the masked front man – Frank (Michael Fassbender). Jon is offered a chance to go to Ireland with the band, which of course he takes, and they spend a year attempting to record an album in an isolated cabin, miles from civilisation. In the meantime, it is learnt by both the audience and Jon that almost every band member is considered mentally ill in some way – and that Frank, despite his image, is apparently the most sane. This is according to Don (Scoot McNairy), who proceeds to hang himself whilst wearing Frank’s spare head. The second half of the film follows the remaining band members as they attempt to make it ‘big’ at South by South West – a music festival in Texas. Emotions are heightened, characters unravel and ultimately, Jon becomes the antagonist of his own story – coercing Frank into fame when it is clear that Frank cannot handle the lifestyle and it’s implications.

The film itself draws together stigmas of mental illness, the idea of fame via social media, the creation of music (what is it really?) and the confusion between reality and fiction to create a world of it’s own. Frank is surreal and strange, it takes place within a world that is unfamiliar to the everyday viewer, but due to the ‘normalcy’ of Jon, the audience can suspend their disbelief to enjoy the ride. Jon does become a truly unlikeable character, and if anything Frank is the character whose journey we identify with towards the climax of the film.

Frank himself is an inextricably complex character. The first time Jon meets him, he destroys the set at their gig as a sign that he is unhappy with their performance/audience. He appears frustrated and temperamental, but it soon becomes clear when the band go to Ireland that Frank is encouraging, soft and incredibly childlike. In a particularly memorable scene, Frank negotiates the group staying in the holiday home with a disgruntled family who had expected the band to have already left. The scene ends with Frank and the mother of the family dancing in the front garden, the woman laughing as Frank spins her around. He is truly charming and completely genuine; at one point Frank offers to explain his facial expressions to Jon to ease Jon’s tensions about talking to a faceless man.

You see, Jon cannot comprehend Frank, and in a way neither can we. There is a comedic sequence as Jon sneaks into Frank’s room whilst Frank is in the shower hoping to catch a glimpse of his real face. Frank’s head is discarded on the floor and as the shower curtain is pulled back, Jon believes he is going to reveal Frank’s true identity. It doesn’t come to fruition however, as it turns out Frank has two fake heads, and wears one to shower. This act of intrusion and mistrust, is exactly what stops us accepting Frank as our protagonist for most of the film. We, like Jon, do not understand Frank  and we are silently egging him on in the shower scene because we also want to see who Frank really is (which is indistinguishably linked to what he looks like). Visual identity and ‘realness’ are a code within society; one can only truly know someone once we have seen their ‘real’ face. Frank gives us, the viewers, a physical representation of our obsession with image and truthfulness.

The climax of the film sees Jon and Frank as the only band members left on the eve of their debut at South by South West.  Secretly, this is what Jon has always wanted. Jon sees Frank as his mentor, as someone who can not only do no wrong, but can never be wrong. This is a completely false assertion, however and Frank suffers a complete mental breakdown brought on by his lack of confidence, anxiety about fans and insecurity about the music they are now performing.

By letting us witness the highs and lows of Frank’s mental state through Jon’s eyes, the film attempts to break down stereotypes which surround mental illness and creativity. There is a misconception, one that is repeated throughout Frank, that the ‘iller’ you are, the more creative you can be. That mental pain, anguish or anxiety allows a deeper understanding of the creative process. We see Frank creating, innovating and making incredible sounds in Ireland, where he is safe, loved and supported by his peers. Frank in the States is erratic and disturbed when his anxiety returns. He becomes increasingly unstable, unable to write the music and lyrics he was able to before (and so ‘Frank’s Most Likable Song Ever’ is created). This retort to the idea that mental illness can be a positive, romantic thing is reinforced when Frank’s mother states that ‘the torment slowed him down’ when talking about how talented Frank is.

Jon fundamentally believed that love and support via fame would fix Frank, but in reality those who are mentally ill cannot simply be fixed. Abrahamson’s final message to the audience, with ‘I Love You All’ is just that. Broken people cannot be fixed, but they can do what they do to survive.

Frank was a joy to watch, sweet and sour in various places. Michael Fassbender was unfailing as Frank. I had been impressed with the physicality as he worked with the giant head, but he also gives an incredible performance as Frank post-head. He is vulnerable, yet still the same character. As one to watch Domhnall Gleeson also shone on screen – playing the naivety and ambition of Jon side by side. The second half of the film, I felt, let itself down slightly and lost some of the momentum that Abrahamson had built up. My only wish is that Maggie Gyllenhaal could have been let a little further off the tight leash that Abrahamson kept her on. Clara could have been a really exciting character (she got a few moments, especially stabbing Jon) but she was almost written into the trope of adoring sidekick to Frank. She had little back story, and seemed to live only for Frank and the music. I wanted to hear about her life, her desires, I wanted to know more about Clara. What I got was an oddly placed sex scene and several witty comebacks.

All in all though, Frank should not be missed. The catchy crazy songs will be in your head forever, but it’s worth it – promise.

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