It’s an odd and bold gamble to take an actor and put them in a mask for the bulk of a film, but with Frank and Michael Fassbender it works surprisingly well. It’s an odd concept but the mask reveals more than it hides in the characters surrounding Frank and it forms the emotional core of a film that goes from some pretty extreme tonal shifts to create one of the most memorable films of the past few years.
Aside from some rather wide shifts in tone, Frank also is bold with narrative point of view. It begins firmly in the head of aspiring musician Jon Burroughs (played by Domhnall Gleeson) and it ends with the perspective shifted and him walking out of the film at the end. Drawing on writer Jon Ronson’s own experience in a band along with several other band stories mixed in, it’s a complex picture of the creative process and talent and how things get created.
It’s a darkly funny story that deals with mental illness and different people deal with it as well. It also deromanticizes many myths about artists and how they form. Part of the pleasure of the film the surprise at how things develop, so I’m not going to spoil that. But the heart of the film is in how the characters interact with each other and with Frank. Fassbender somehow manages to convey a surprising range of emotions all while beneath the mask and he also he has a great and distinctive singing voice.
The first member of the band we meet is the manager played by Scoot McNairy who has been turning in great character performances for years (most notably in Killing Them Softly). His portrayal of the manager as someone who is dealing with depression is one of the more unique portrayals of that in recent films. It’s part of the strategy in the film of shifting tone to keep us off balance when we see something and are not sure if it is funny, sad, tragic, or all three. Most of all the characters are human and complex and they constantly resist stereotypes.
While audience surrogate Jon thinks the band (with the unpronounceable name The Soronprfbs) should be more popular, Clara (played with gusto by Maggie Gyllenhaal), wants to focus on the music and working together as a band. This conflict forms the dramatic tension and undermines the expectations we usually have for this type of musical film that traditionally ends with a big concert scene. The distance between the vision that Jon has for the band and the reality keep diverging throughout the film and that is ultimate it results in him leaving the narrative as he realizes that he doesn’t belong there.
A great film can join a dramatic structure with solid acting and Lenny Abrahamson brings together a cast that have many subtle and beautiful moments as we go on a strange musical journey. Frank does have one of the most powerful and transcendent endings of any film of the past decade and it stayed with me for days.