In Lenny Abrahamson’s lovely film ‘Frank,’ Jon (Domhnall
Gleeson) is a would-be musician who works an office job by day. It’s possible he doesn’t have a lot of talent.
He struggles with trite lyrics in his head and with equally
trite tunes on his keyboard. One day he happens to be on the beach at the right
moment (“right” being relative, mind you) when the keyboardist for an eccentric
pop band is attempting to drown himself. Thus Jon is invited to become the new
keyboardist. He heads up to a bucolic Irish cottage to help record a new album
with the band, which includes Don (Scoot McNairy), Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal)
and the mysterious if affable Frank (Michael Fassbender), who wears a gigantic,
smiley helmet-mask over his face and apparently never takes it off.
What seems like the opportunity of a lifetime turns out to
be much different than that, as Jon discovers that one or more members in the
band may have legitimate problems. This is where Abrahamson’s film pushes
beyond the typical band-movie tropes and becomes a moving portrait of artistic
passion on the verge of madness and complete dysfunctionality. It’s also very
funny, sometimes in a light-hearted way, and often in a darker way.
As Jon slowly realizes his bandmates are bonkers, he’s also
busily at work attempting to transition them from obscurity to internet fame.
He tweets about their progress on the album (his Twitter followers slowing
going up), he posts videos on YouTube, and eventually nabs an invite for them
to play at — dun da DUN — the South by Southwest Festival, where the film screened earlier this year after premiering at Sundance.
What I found fascinating is the connection Abrahamson draws
between our internet age of audience engagement and the means by which bands,
films, whatever attempt to draw attention and a fanbase. We live in a highly
distracted culture that often necessitates gimmicks and stunts to attract
followers, page hits, video views, what have you. Frank’s gigantic helmet would
indeed seem like a stunt, as do a number of other things that play out in the
film. But is it? Or is it the elephant in the room suggesting something much
more concerning going on?
Now, about Frank. Abrahamson has done something quite
brilliant with the casting here, akin to Spike Jonze using Scarlett Johansson’s
voice in “Her.” The audience knows that Frank, underneath his helmet, looks
like Michael Fassbender. (But, importantly, the characters in the film don’t.) Thus
we can’t help but envision Fassbender’s handsome face, and everything we know
about him as an actor, as we watch this strange character with a balloon head
jump and jive about. It cleverly sets up certain expectations about Frank that
Abrahamson is then able to completely upend. It also sets up suspense — will we
ever get to see Fassbender in the
film, even though we know plenty well what he looks like?
This, in many ways, is what “Frank” is about. The cult of coolness surrounding someone can
take away from truly understanding them. What seems like posturing may in fact
be a cry for help, a troubled soul, a loving person in need of a family who
“Frank” hits theaters via Magnolia this Friday, August 15th.