The first thing most people will hear about Frank is that Michael Fassbender is in it, wearing a giant papier-mâché head, so I might as well start there. After all, that’s the only part of the movie I was aware of before sitting down to watch it. Luckily for director Lenny Abrahamson, there’s a lot more going on than just that odd (but somehow perfect) casting choice. Though Fassbender will almost certainly be what reels audiences in, Frank is less about the actor’s performance and more about what the character, an enigmatic band leader who pulls brilliant lyrics out of thin air and demands nothing less than his own unique vision of musical perfection, represents.
Taken at face value (or mask value, in this case), Frank is the tortured artist, capable of producing great beauty but only out of terrible pain. A lonely childhood, social anxieties, you name it, Frank’s got it. That’s just one side to the character, though, and dismissing him as a simple savant would be a mistake (as well as exactly the trap that writers Joe Ronson and Peter Straughan seemingly want audiences to first fall into). Frank is also a charismatic frontman styled after Syd Barrett (as well as the actual Frank – British singer/comedian Chris Sievey, a.k.a. Frank Sidebottom), a misfit making his own kind of music as a defiant stand against the comparative normality of everything around him, and a comment on the media’s obsession with elevating men and women up just to bringing them crashing down once they’re exposed as less than gods.
That Fassbender so confidently and completely portrays this riddle of a character is a testament to his abilities as a leading man. Even with his features obscured, Fassbender’s body language speaks volumes, and the vocal inflections he adopts allow us to imagine the ever-shifting face of the man behind the mask. Though some viewers may puzzle over exactly what makes Frank tick, and what leads to the frightening glitches in his internal hardware, Fassbender embodies rebel spirit above all else. Clearly drawing from real-life inspirations like deadmau5 and Daft Punk, he has the screen presence of a real rock star, bursting with excitement, anticipation and, above all else, passion for his craft. Fassbender’s is a brave and winning performance.
Despite its title, however, Frank doesn’t paint its title character as the immediate protagonist. That would be Jon (Domnhall Gleeson), an aspiring but completely talentless songwriter and keyboardist who dreams of musical fame he doesn’t deserve. While shuffling along the beach one day, he comes across the members of Frank’s band, The Soronprfbs, attempting to prevent their keyboardist from committing suicide. Manager Don (Scott McNairy, excellent if underutilized), desperate to get the band ready for a show that night, offers Jon the chance to play with them.
Soon enough, Jon has been whisked away to a woodland retreat, where the members of The Soronprfbs do battle with one another and themselves in their attempts to record an album. The remote, bizarrely wonderful music they make (actually by Stephen Rennicks, whose incredible skill just makes Frank that much more special) is the only end result that the film needs to explain why so many musicians suffer for their art – and why it’s so important that they do. Even with barely-there lyrics and frequently indecipherable composition, Frank‘s music strikes a truthful and emotional nerve.
Though Jon is our entrance point to Frank’s weird world, he’s hardly likable, always scheming to bend Frank’s ear and move him towards the mainstream. That’s not a knock against Gleeson, whose dweeby appearance and line delivery easily sells Jon as an ambitious hanger-on. It just means that we get to rub our hands together in glee as band member Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) mentally tortures and physically abuses Jon, hoping to shake him. As he tightens his grip and convinces The Soronprfbs to embrace social media and play a gig at (wouldn’t you know it) SXSW, it becomes clearer that Jon is more of an unintentional villain than anything else. If Frank is the Llewyn Davis-esque archetype of creative expression, Jon represents the next wave of music lovers, more centered on likability (read: bland accessibility) than imagination. His unwitting superficiality is probably best exemplified by horrendously vapid tweets, often displayed around his head on screen. (“Panini with ham and cheese #livingthedream” is just one offender.)
For much of the movie, Frank is the center of a tug-of-war between Jon and Clara. Whereas Jon wants YouTube viewers and name recognition, Clara is laser-focused on staying true to her own distinctive musical identity. Like Frank, she appreciates the transcendent highs that truly expressing oneself through music can give, and she’s willing to get her hands dirty if it means keeping Frank’s purity intact. Gyllenhaal is absolutely phenomenal in the role, nailing both the comedy and heated emotion present in her scathing attacks on Jon. She’s deadly serious about artistry, and one look in Gyllenhaal’s fierce and fiery eyes will be enough to convince you that you should be too.
There are some other band members present, though I’m scratching my head to think of a single interesting thing about them – the film never pretends they’re characters in their own right, instead granting them the same prop status as Jon’s keyboard and Frank’s mic. That’s a little unfortunate, but with the heated interactions between Frank, Clara and Jon taking up every inch of nearly every frame, sidelining the minor players feels like a necessary evil.
Frank goes to some surprising, less happy places in its third act, calling into question everything about Frank’s life and the actual nature of The Soronprfbs as a band. Still, the film is never less than mesmerizing, even when it’s swimming in deep waters. Perhaps more importantly, Frank never lets its weighty questions get in the way of subversively black comedy, compelling drama and plainly great music. It all leads to one of the most profoundly touching and tear-jerkingly beautiful endings I’ve seen on screen in a long time.
Come to see Fassbender steal the show, but don’t let religiously attempting to peel back his character’s layers distract you from beholding Frank as a whole. It’s a frequently funny, often dazzling look at the power of music and the zany lives of those who devote themselves to it entirely. Like that awesome indie band everyone’s talking about that’s just in town for one night only, you won’t want to miss Frank.
Darkly funny, whip-smart, impressively original and boasting one of Michael Fassbender's most towering performances to date, Frank just about has it all.