Written by Jon Ronson & Peter Straughan
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
When given an actor like Michael Fassbender, a man with a handsome leading actor face and square jaw, the last thing you would think to do is put him under a paper mache head for ¾ of your movie. In doing this though the filmmakers give Fassbender some freedoms he might not be afforded in more traditional roles in films that call on him to be a smoldering lover or a dashing hero. The character of Frank is a cipher, created by comedian and musician Chris Sievey. Sievey used Frank as a way to express the strangeness and absurdity he might have felt too nervous about showcasing with his face revealed. The film Frank, very different from the real world Frank, is a mentally ill man who is unable to see himself as a valuable person and hides in this mask, which he sees as the ideal form of a face.
The main character of Frank is not the name in the title but struggling musician Jon who lives in a coastal English town and daydreams during walks along the beach after work about all the songs he has in him to write. However, when he sits down to work out a piece, he either gets stuck after a single line or ends up copying an already existing melody that ended up in his head. Through a chance encounter, Jon ends up playing keyboards for a visiting experimental American band the Soronprfbs. The band’s lead singer is the masked Frank who sings dadaist songs while the other members of the group are continually crumbling into inner strife. Jon follows them to a remote cabin in Ireland where the band plans to compose their first album, and it is here that the aspiring songwriter gets to know how this group came to be.
There’s a scene where Don, the Soronprfbs’ manager, warns Jon that he will inevitably want to be Frank once he sees the genius at work. Jon is very incredulous at this idea and hears one of Don’s songs which the man says is no good. The piece ends up being a beautiful melancholy pop tune, and Jon expresses his enjoyment, but Don plays it off as the other man just being nice. This exchange is the thesis of the entire film; that we are always unhappy to be ourselves and strive to be like people, we assume to possess the unnameable element we desire. The catch is those people we admire usually hate themselves and want to be like another person.
The opening of the film, a scene which I would argue the rest of the picture sadly does not live up to, spotlights the frustrating nature of the creative process. We hear Jon’s thoughts as he scans the coast and rattles off melodies and silly lyrics, trying to force the inspiration. There are many films about people working through the creative process, but this is one of the best moments that captures the worst aspects of that life. Inspiration is not a faucet that creators can turn on and off, you can go for days, weeks, or months without having a great idea, and that sort of drought can be discouraging.
The places Frank sags is when it gets too caught up in its quirky indie rock whimsy, veering into that territory of cloying indie film that wants to be adored at SXSW. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character, Clara, the second in command in the band, is a little too faux riot grrl in a way that doesn’t feel organic. It feels like an actor playing an exaggeration of the real thing. That’s the danger when you make a movie about making art, it’s just not entirely possible to capture the subtlety and nuance of creative people, and so writers can lean into tired cliches.
Frank does a great job in capturing the tension between staying true to your art and wanting to create so that people will like you. There’s a good mix of sadness and humor which might be hard to pull off given the film has such an eccentric concept. It has moments of brilliance when tackling the creative mind, but will often diverge into cutesy indie film territory but never becomes too indulgent.