Based very loosely on writer Jon Ronson’s time as a keyboardist in Frank Sidebottom’s band, Frank is a film that offers the very definition of quirky. But, after Ronson’s other filmic enterprise The Men Who Stare At Goats, would you really expect anything less?
Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is an aspiring but ultimately failing musician living at home with his parents. When he witnesses their keyboard player trying to drown himself Jon finds himself recruited into the band Soronprfbs (no, not even they know how to pronounce it) by manager Don (Scoot McNairy). Playing in the band’s live gig that night Jon encounters the violent Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and the mercurial, paper mache head-wearing Frank (Michael Fassbender). Before he can wonder what is really going on Jon is whisked away to a remote cottage to play a part in recording the band’s first album and all the insane political and artistic methods that entails.
The reality is that Frank is a film that perfectly represents the notion of the end justifying the surreal means taken to get there. Because in many ways Frank is so obviously broken down into a three act structure that each act rarely feels the same as the last but still just about manages to represent a coherent whole.
When we first meet Jon we’re allowed to revel in the film’s quintessentially British sense of humour. He walks around his local hometown with his thoughts desperately trying to find some semblance of musical talent in an otherwise void mind. By the time he meets Frank you’re just about in tune with the comedy before it takes a fairly massive swerve to weird town but is kept on the straight and narrow by Fassbender’s brilliantly emotive and endearing portrayal as Frank. And then there is the dénouement and, thanks in no small part to director Lenny Abrahamson’s clear ability to conjure huge pathos, we’re treated to a heart-ripping climax that gives an all too powerful insight into both the creative process but more importantly mental illness.
For Jon to never see Frank’s face he often wonders what is going on beneath the mask. The same is true of the film but as Frank says at one point “Underneath I’m giving you a welcoming smile” it’s hard not to be gently cradled into the most offbeat of road-movies come character dissections.
The comedy and tone will not be to everyone’s taste. It’s often perplexing as we’re asked to first laugh at this bizarre group of outcasts and then sympathise and embrace them but it works in its own strange little ways. For while Frank might not always be able to express himself as Jon would like so the film smartly articulates its message of eccentricity and creativity being almost inseparable from each other. At one point Jon says of his fellow band members “miserable childhood, mental illness, where do I find that kind of inspiration?” Is there method to this madness? It seems in a round the park, over the hill and far away kind of sense yes, there is.
Gyllenhaal is terrifying as Clara; eyes full of venom and prone to moments of rage she is quite the force to be reckoned with. Scoot McNairy needs to be in more films such is his talent and here he does not disappoint, his Don is a friendly spoken man masking a world of pain in plain sight. Fassbender is still able to emote huge amounts beneath Frank’s mask but it is in the final act that he’ll melt your heart in the best way possible. Meanwhile Gleeson continues to display why he is so coveted in films. His Jon is a charming, delusional man who, whilst the straight man on display, is easily the most natural comedic presence on offer.
Forget any notion of big-headeness because while Frank doesn’t always work when it does it’s funny and adorable in such a way as to leave a mark on your heart.