The Sommer Series: A review of “Frank”

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Neliana Ferraro

Photo courtesy of the Irish Film Board

Written by Sommer Rusinski

Bear with me on this one.

Frank is a quirky little film that explores the convergence of mental illness and creativity. It follows the pursuit of the electronic post-punk band Soronpfrbs (pronounced exactly how it sounds) and their pursuit of reaching their artistic peak.

Frank starts on our hero Jon (Domhnall Gleeson, About Time), a struggling songwriter whose vanilla life is slowly killing him. After witnessing the keyboard player of Soronpfrbs attempt to drown himself, he gets picked to be their new bandmate.

After heading north to a retreat in the woods to work on their next album, Jon realizes he is an outsider in this band of misfits. There is Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an aggressive theremin player who has resigned herself to hating Jon forever, Baraque (Francoise Civil) and Nana (Carla Azar) who only speak French to each other, and of course, the heart and soul of the band, Frank. Played by Michael Fassbender, Frank is a deeply troubled genius who never takes off his giant papier maché head.

The head, strangely enough, isn’t the oddest part of this film. Although it’s explained that most of the band are familiar with the inside of a mental hospital, the way the characters the react to each other is bizarre. Their tortured songwriting process consists more of chasing each other through the woods, recording odd sounds in nature, and general insanity than actually getting together and playing music.

Michael Fassbender is incredible. They took one of the biggest actors in the world and covered his face for almost the entire movie. That’s insane. But then again, so is Frank. Even robbed of all facial expression, Fassbender somehow brings a sensitivity and humanness to Frank unmatched by any other character in the film. He uses the physicality of Frank’s mental illness to show his arc, and the way he carries himself is just as effective for the audience as facial expression.

Photo courtesy of the Irish Film Board
Photo courtesy of the Irish Film Board

This rest of the cast is perfect, as well. Gleeson shines as a shy, British redhead whose normalcy allows us to empathize with him. He is the audience, always keeping a level head and making decisions that any of us would. But because he threatens the balance of the band, we start to wonder if Jon really is the enemy. The other standout is Maggie Gyllenhaal. Her Clara is cold and unpredictable, but there’s just the slightest vulnerability that makes her irresistible. We hate her and yet we can’t take our eyes off her.

The biggest potential issue for audiences is relatability. Because the music is so far out of the realm of our reality, it’s hard to accept the fact that Frank is a creative genius. The Soronpfrbs’ sound is dissonance and it’s difficult to connect and care about their artistic expression when we just don’t get it. Because the film is centered on mental illness, there is some difficulty understanding the characters’ choices, and the audience is left confused and hanging on for dear life.

The movie loses its way a little bit. What at first promises a fulfilling story of crazy artists making music settles into a strange depression that leaves the audience unsatisfied. However, Frank finds its footing again, and by the last scene, we’re reminded how beautiful and emotional originality can be.