Cinematic Thoughts for Cinematic Minds
2014/ UK, Ireland
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank follows a young, aspiring musician named Jon who, by a stroke of great luck (the band’s keyboard player tries to drown himself and is hospitalised), gets a gig as the new keyboard player for a strange avant garde band with the almost unpronounceable moniker, Soronprfbs. However, Jon’s experiences with the band are not quite what he expected as he is dragged into an utterly bizarre journey with his equally bizarre band members. For starters, he has to endure gruelling rehearsal sessions lasting nearly a year in a remote cabin in the Irish countryside for an album which is, in the end, never recorded. Jon decides to record this experience and his Youtube videos lead to the band being invited to play a gig in America. Of course, the gig does not go according to plan and the band falls apart, leaving it to Jon to bring them together again. On top of this he has to contend with his fellow band members who hate him, speak a different language to him, and do not want the band to become successful. Then there is the band’s mysterious front man, the titular Frank, who wears a huge papier-mâché head he refuses to remove…
It is clearly evident from the plot description that Frank is, like the characters that inhabit its filmic world, quite peculiar. It begins somewhat innocuously as a typically quirky indie comedy with the opening introducing us to an awkward, introverted dreamer with his head in the clouds. There is a beautiful sequence showing Jon staring at the sea while he thinks about ideas for songs, which sums up his character perfectly. The vast, endless sea before him represents both his longing to escape to the freedom of another world and, conversely, his inability to progress as a songwriter as he is trapped on land by the very same sea which offers such tantalising hope of escape. Much of the comedy in the film’s opening comes from Jon’s inability to progress as a songwriter. We get an insight into Jon’s frustration through a very funny voiceover where he literally sings what he sees. The comedy comes from how truly awful his attempts are at getting inspiration from his surroundings as he sings lines such as “Lady in the red coat what you doin’ with that bag!”. Things do not improve much when he gets home to his keyboard as he ends up realising that what he originally thinks is a brilliant new composition is actually an old Madness song. This kind of light-hearted quirky comedy continues throughout the first half of the film as he meets the band and moves to Ireland with them. The band members certainly provide a lot of the film’s comedic moments as they take their music so seriously, getting into fights and searching for inspiration in the strangest of things such as recording the ambience of the countryside. Alongside this off-beat sense of humour there are a number of hilarious visual gags, such as Jon flipping the lid of his laptop down to reveal that he has grown a big bushy beard as the voiceover explains that they have been here for eleven months now.
However, this sense of jovial fun is soon shattered as the film draws towards its midpoint as a shocking moment occurs where Don, the band’s manager, is found to have committed suicide. This sequence acts as the catalyst from which the film begins to explore much darker themes. It is a bold statement which blatantly tells the viewer that it is time to switch gears, to wipe the slate clean, and adopt a different mindset for the remainder of the film. Indeed, after Don’s death, it becomes apparent that it is a film of two halves as it morphs into a more serious dramatic piece laced with black comedy. After the high of the first half, the second emerges as a massive come down, forcing the viewer to reappraise their initial views. The band’s plight and eventual split parallels the film’s descent into darker territories. Arguments get out of hand, Jon is stabbed in the leg, the band splits in half, Frank suffers a complete nervous breakdown on stage, both Frank and Jon are hit by cars, and then Frank disappears. It is clear that the film has veered very far from its initial light-heartedness, instead choosing to focus on harrowing incidents to provoke a completely different reaction from the viewer. This change in tone is most evident in the scene where Jon is recognised in a diner as the guy who made the funny videos on Youtube. Jon’s attempts to convince people that it is not a joke and that Frank’s disappearance is not a publicity stunt fall on deaf ears. Here is where the viewer is made to question the judgements they formulated during the first half of the film as they too, like the people in the diner, once laughed at the band’s actions and Frank’s demeanour. The film cleverly manipulates the viewer, making them feel that it was wrong to have laughed at Frank and co. even though it prompted that laughter in the first place. Frank is, then, a film of opposites; the quiet of the countryside and the loudness of the band, cold, rainy Ireland and hot, sunny America, Frank masked and unmasked, laughter and sadness. It is, ultimately, up to the viewer to decide what kind of film Frank really is. I, personally, think it is a film about everything and nothing. Jon starts off with nothing, gains a band and a purpose in life, and then ends up with nothing again after deciding that his input in the band is destructive.
Frank is, then, a strange film which challenges the conventional notion that a film should establish a certain mood, tone, or genre, and see it through to the end. It benefits greatly from some effective, believable performances, in particular Domhall Gleeson as Jon and Michael Fassbender as Frank, which ground what could be a very over-the-top film in a recognisable, relatable reality. In the end though, Frank does not want to be straightforward or conventional; it does not want to tell you what kind of film it is. It is a challenging viewing experience which does not pander to the viewer with the short attention span who wants everything spelled out for them. For this it must be commended. You may not like the film, but you cannot deny its bravery and conviction to try something a bit different in a world of carbon copies and films which play it safe.