Talking Movies: Larry Abrahamson’s ‘Frank’ is one heady indie rock film

You’ve seen the film where Fassbender shows his penis. Now see the film where he doesn’t show his face.

Catch Frank at FilmScene through Sept. 18

It’s difficult to tell whether director Larry Abrahamson’s comedy-drama Frank benefits from or is hindered by its central conceit: Star Michael Fassbender, despite his renowned beauty and acting chops, spends the film with his head inside an over-sized, cartoonish, paper-maché mask. Fassbender plays the title character, an eccentric musical genius who heads an indie-rock band full of unstable personalities, and who, for reasons unknown to anyone in the band, never removes his mask. The enigma of his appearance is the center of much of the dramatic development of the film, but there is little doubt that many of the people who watch this film will not already know what Fassbender looks like. So for many, already knowing the ‘answer’ to this mystery may beomce either a major, drama-stifling flaw or one more reflexive irony in a film full of them.

At the beginning of the film, the keyboard player in Frank’s band—and latest in an apparently long line of depressive keyboard players—throws himself into the Atlantic Ocean and, as a replacement, they pick up passerby Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson). Jon happens to be a keyboardist and aspiring songwriter and eagerly joins them for their next gig and subsequent recording sessions. The recording of the album, done in an isolated Irish cabin, ends up lasting for almost a year. During this time, Jon’s abilities as a songwriter continue to stagnate, even while his closeness with Frank grows, along with his enmity with violence-prone theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

Jon is the viewer’s cypher, our point of identification as we are introduced to the wild world of Frank’s band, but he is also depicted with a healthy dose of ironic distance. He is, as we learn early on, a rather banal keyboard player and a downright dreadful songwriter. The film’s opening scene gives us his thoroughly uninspired song lyrics in the form of voiceover narration: “Lady in the red coat, where are you going?” sings a flat voice over a shot of Jon passing a woman in a red coat. Unhappy with his inability to write a song, Jon posts to Twitter about his long day writing songs, his public declaration of his songwriting success perhaps giving him some substitute rush of accomplishment.

The film’s satiric treatment of Twitter—Jon’s misleading posts are displayed onscreen throughout the film, a sort of secondary, unreliable narrator—is akin to the ironies deployed around Frank’s mask: an overt contradiction between exterior and interior, located right around the intersection of tragic and comic. Frank’s goofily cheery mask, we almost automatically assume, belies a much less cheery inside; Jon’s use of Twitter is ostensibly for the public narration of private thoughts, but it is of course just another kind of mask, an interior-as-disguise. This dichotomy is played at various points in the film either for laughs or tears, or sometimes for both.

Just as Frank wavers between the tragic and comic effects of contradiction between inside and outside, it also dryly mocks the tropes we might expect to find in a comedy-drama about tortured musical genius while fully participating in them. Is there a secret that Frank’s mask is hiding (other than the ‘secret’ that he looks like Michael Fassbender)? The film seems both to ask this question and to mock Jon for asking it, the latter proving a bit more interesting. Perhaps we shouldn’t push so hard to know these things, the film initially admonishes us, before building much of its third act around answering the more conventionally dramatic question about Frank’s identity. (Actually, more fascinating and compelling than any final reveal regarding Frank are the somewhat dark implications regarding Jon’s own motives for joining the band and befriending the weirdo with the paper-maché head.)

In the end, it (frankly) feels like Frank spends too much time working up ironic distance from its characters to really pack the emotional punch that the movie seems to be striving for in its final scenes. While the film’s ironic play with masks and interiority makes it both interesting and funny for stretches, it ultimately can’t quite sell its more earnest resolution. We might see in the character Frank a contradictory metaphor for the troubled status of authenticity in a world abounding in types of masks, but this neat thought doesn’t ultimately guide the film Frank toward a satisfactory conclusion.

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