Frank is a delightful sort of weirdness, the sort of which is often only found in independent films. It is not weird for the sake of weird either. The oddity is inherent in each character and in the narrative, making it feel natural and at home. Director Lenny Abrahamson’s previous films are much in the vein of Frank – darkly comedic dramas with challenging social themes and equally challenging relationships such as Adam and Joe (2004) and What Richard Did (2012). Although the events are fictional, Frank was inspired by Frank Sidebottom, the on-stage persona of 1980s musical comedian Chris Seivey who wore a large fake head almost identical to the one featured in the film. Frank was co-written by journalist and author Jon Ronson, who was the keyboardist in Sidebottom’s band and has also written about his time with the group.
Frank follows the adventure of struggling musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), as he is granted a place in the unpronounceable experimental techno band “Soronprfbs”. At the heart of the band is Frank, who perpetually wears a large fake head. Masterfully played by Michael Fassbender, Frank is vulnerable and enigmatic yet charismatic and entirely loveable, if a little unstable. We, and the increasing number of Jon’s Twitter and YouTube followers, are invited to watch as the band ventures to the Irish countryside to record an album, which proves to be a complicated process, in part due to Frank’s insistence on perfection and inventing new instruments and sounds.
Jon tries to fit in with the other members of Soronprfbs, only to be repeatedly and aggressively rebuffed. It is only the band manager Don (Scoot McNairy) and Frank himself that welcome Jon into the fold. Maggie Gyllenhaal provides a pitch-perfect performance as the permanently hostile and aggressive Clara. Gleeson portrays Jon’s optimism and ambition with a believable naiveté so we root for the band to succeed. This is Fassbender’s show though. Like Ryan Gosling’s performance in Lars and the Real Girl (2007) and Mathew McConaughey’s recent performances in Mud (2012) and True Detective (2014), Frank shows us a different side to Fassbender. Although he is already accepted as a great actor following his roles in Hunger (2008), Fish Tank (2009) and Shame (2011), his performance here further demonstrates his versatility. Even with the serious hindrance of not being able to use any facial expressions whatsoever, Fassbender portrays every emotion Frank is feeling through voice and body language. We are still somehow able to connect and empathise with this strange character, despite his giant fake head.
Frank presents us with a labyrinth of themes. Mental illness is presented as a strange and sometimes amusing thing that can happen to anyone, regardless of upbringing, and manifests itself in a variety of ways. Although the film jokes about the mental states of the band members, it does not make light of their problems. Frank suggests that there may not have been a trigger or a perceptible reason for a mental instability, but rather some people just have different mental processes from birth. When questioned about Frank, one character explains that “nothing happened to him… he’s got a mental illness”. Don and Frank are forgiven for their bouts of insanity because of their good nature and much of what they say seems so reasonable. In a conversation with Jon, Frank convincingly points out that “normal faces are weird”. This reasonable insanity is just one element of the film that makes its weirdness so delightful.
Music clearly plays a large role in the film, although it is ambiguous whether or not the music is actually any good or whether Jon’s dream of fame is viable. When we first hear Soronprfbs play it just seems like random noise – utterly meaningless – and it is clear that Jon is thinking the same thing. However, when Frank takes his place as front man and starts to perform, the music comes together. This is reinforced by Jon, who gradually starts to enjoy himself and the music.
Characters often state that Frank is a genius and, indeed, the music seems to need him to make it all resonate. Frank’s personality and Jon’s optimism make us believe that they really could be famous and, despite Frank’s shortcomings, the film makes us believe he really is a genius.
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