There are numerous surprises waiting in Frank & Lola, Matthew Ross’ lurid psycho-thriller, not least of which is the way the director utilizes his actors. Ross, a first-time feature filmmaker who arrives here confidently, casts the oft-menacing Michael Shannon, playing hot-shot Las Vegas chef Frank, as a smoldering romantic lead-cum-action man. Meanwhile, frequent manic pixie dream girl Imogen Poots, playing Frank’s girlfriend Lola, is positioned as a femme fatale. We expect one actor to bring the edge, and it turns out that where he has a warped everyman quality here, it’s she who adds the element of unpredictability.
Frank and Lola’s relationship begins charmingly enough. Recalling a time when American movies were more playful with their editing, the director cuts back and forth in the timeline of their courtship, encapsulating months in minutes during one delightful early sequence. Frank makes Lola a luxurious omelette and takes her on a drive round Vegas, and soon she’s head-over-heels. The problem with jealousy, suggests Ross, is it can destabilize even the sunniest of romances. Lola has secrets that Frank wants to know. Then, a snap moment of infidelity on her part sends him eagerly down the rabbit hole, flying to Paris in search of answers like an amateur PI.
The stage is set for an enjoyable – if somewhat slight – contemporary noir, an odyssey into the male psyche that’s primed to be interpreted in all kinds of ways. Through several twists, across the inherently carnal cities of Paris and Vegas, we discover the truth about Lola’s history. Then again, maybe we don’t.
We, like Frank, only have the word of Lola and her old flame, a playboy novelist played by Michael Nyqvist, to go on. Nyqvist, for the record, is better used here than he has been since Hollywood adopted him as a go-to Euro-villain some five years ago. There’s something more unsettling about him in this less obviously villainous role than there was to him when he appeared as boss-level baddies in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and John Wick.
The point isn’t really for us to find out the truth, about who Lola actually is or what kind of role she has gotten Frank to play in her suspected game. Ross has made a movie not about unraveling the mystery that is this girl, but about the uncertainty that can come with new relationships, and all the insecurity and doubt that can stem from a love without trust.
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It’s handled from the perspective of the jealous boyfriend, so there’s a tendency for women to be portrayed as little more than objects of desire, but Ross is always critical of his hero. Frank is forever concerned with asserting his own manliness – we watch him lay out a stranger in a bar upon discovering Lola might have cheated on him – while his dominant body language in the kitchen, his natural environment, hints at someone who enjoys the power of being the top dog. This isn’t a man who likes to feel out of control. It’s a character that could have been repellent if played the wrong way, but as played by Michael Shannon, Frank is sympathetic, even relatable.
Since announcing himself ravenously in William Friedkin’s Bug a decade ago, Shannon has been at risk of becoming pigeonholed as creep and killer. In his last film, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, the camera feared him; here, it idolizes him. Frank & Lola recasts Shannon as a sex symbol by twisting his eye-bulging intensity into sheer magnetism.
Instead, it’s Poots who plays the unknown quantity, the film’s element of danger, while Shannon comes as close to playing the cocksure American hero as he ever has. He simmers, restrained, while she plays her part always with the suggestion that something darker lurks within. It’s Poots’ best performance in a career which has found her too often under-challenged.
As though upending expectations of his two leads wasn’t enough, Ross also finds room for a satisfying new kind of turn from Justin Long, brilliantly subverting his dorky ordinary guy persona to play Lola’s douchey humblebragger boss, Keith. Keith, like perhaps every male who shows interest in Lola, is regarded as a person of suspicion by Frank. It may well be that Lola isn’t Frank’s problem at all, and that Frank is the villain of his own story, his macho alpha paranoia destined to scupper a good (if complicated) relationship. Maybe Frank has every reason to be suspicious. Maybe Lola isn’t trying to play games with him at all. Ross is assured enough to leave you guessing, never providing any easy answers before presenting one final enigmatic shot at the close.
Anyone who's ever wondered how Michael Shannon would fare as a smoldering romantic lead or how Imogen Poots might handle the role of a femme fatale has their answer in Matthew Ross' engaging psycho-thriller.