Michael Fassbender is an incredible actor. He has wowed audiences in films both big and small, giving Oscar worthy turns in each one of director Steve McQueen’s three films: Hunger, Shame, and last year’s best picture, 12 Years a Slave. Yet despite his impressive independent filmography (which includes the oft-overlooked Fish Tank), Fassbender has also connected with the masses; first, in Zack Snyder’s 2006 hit, 300, and more recently in the revitalized X-Men franchise as the master of magnetism, Magneto. As evidenced by his diverse roles, Fassbender’s range is immeasurable. With Frank, Fassbender chose to stretch his immense talent further by playing a character that spends the majority of the film wearing a papier-mâché head.
Though Fassbender is the titular character, Frank follows a strange year within the life of Jon Burroughs, played by Domhnall Gleeson. Gleeson, whose career is on the upswing (he is currently filming Star Wars: Episode VII), plays Jon with both skill and subtlety. An aspiring musician, Jon dreams of being a rockstar, yet lacks the vital and inexplicable creative spark of a brilliant artist. Though a competent keyboardist, he feels that his creativity is hamstrung by the humdrum normality of his life. When he runs into Fassbender’s Frank and his band – a group so avant-garde that they cannot even pronounce their own band’s name – Jon’s circumstances take a surprising turn. Given that their keyboardist has recently attempted to commit suicide, Frank and company find themselves in need of a replacement. Jon agrees, abandoning his job and home for the chance of pursuing fame and fortune.
Though Jon is the central character of the film, it is refreshing how unlikable he is. He is not an antihero by any means, but rather a believable human being; he is so wholly focused on his dreams of fame that he is made oblivious to the creative magic in which he is partaking, instead only looking to benefit from his involvement with Frank. By joining Frank’s band, he hopes to commercialize their creativity in a way that cheapens it, making it more digestible and appealing to the public. In doing so, he also exploits the band’s zaniness for his own benefit, filming their attempt to make an album at a remote cabin and posting the videos to Youtube while also commenting about them on Twitter. Though his deeds are disagreeable, it is Jon’s willfully oblivious and selfish nature that humanizes his character and it is a testament to Gleeson’s acting skill that the audience does not wholly reject him and lose interest in the film.
Though Gleeson’s Jon may be the main character of the film, Frank belongs to Fassbender. Despite spending nearly the entire running time wearing a giant papier-mâché head, Frank is a wholly realized character. He is a perfect example of the tragic genius whose quirks and oddities only add to the brilliance of their art. Unlike Jon, Frank possesses that unnamable, innate quality that allows him to transcend the bounds of normal thought; he is able to draw inspiration from all things, mining the “far corners” as he calls it in hopes that he can transport people there with his music. Despite Frank’s towering creativity, he possesses a fragile psyche and has many emotional problems that are only compounded by the arrival of Jon.
What is so great about Frank is that the film actually treats mental illness with the respect that it deserves. Frank’s psychological fragility has no roots in a past trauma, he simply is how he is, attempting to nurture his musical genius while at the same time having to struggle with the unique way his mind functions. Jon’s immediate and ill-conceived decision to exploit Frank’s oddness by uploading videos of him to the internet is, in a way, a direct criticism of how we as a society often treat those afflicted with mental illness; instead of acceptance, their presence is viewed as a weird form of entertainment. That one could find someone’s suffering amusing is a troubling thought and one that the film turns upon its audience, asking them to rethink how they felt about the first part of the film as it proceeds into its final, more serious act.
Though Frank’s band may initially seem icy towards Jon’s arrival, it is clear that this is because it is composed of people that genuinely care about him and his mental well-being. His biggest supporter is Clara, played by the consistently impressive Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is immediately suspicious of Jon’s motives and his desires for Frank’s music. Rounding out the cast is Scoot McNairy as the band’s manager and Frank’s former, fellow psychiatric ward patient, Don. Like Frank, Don is also struggling with mental illness and depression. Despite his dark musings, McNairy helps add some dimension to the film’s inspection of mental illness, being a person on the inside more capable than Frank at giving voice to what he is feeling and experiencing.
At a brisk 95 minutes, Frank is a tight film. The cinematography is creative, the direction by Lenny Abrahamson is inspired, and, perhaps most importantly, the film’s soundtrack is superb, capturing the weird, brilliance of what Frank seeks to create in perfect, distorted clarity. Despite being about fairly dark subject matter, the film is also consistently clever and very, very funny; it finds that perfect middle-ground while avoiding the common pitfall of egregious tonal shifts that take the audience out of the experience. This is no doubt due to the creativity and talent of the film’s two writers, Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, who have created something truly unique.
There is not much more to say about Frank. It’s a great film, a heartfelt, off-kilter inspection of something that is often mistreated in media, and one that you will most likely be thinking about for some time to come. So do yourself a favor, watch this film and let Frank take you to the far corners.