- In a short span of time, Michael Fassbender has become one of those actors who I want to see cast in everything. Whenever I hear of a new film in production looking for an epic hero or a sinister villain, Fassbender is always one of the first names that comes to mind. He's one of those actors who can bring that extra something to a part - who can elevate it with charisma, presence, psychological complexity, and gravitas. With that said, I would probably not have thought of Michael Fassbender to play the titular role in FRANK - a quirky comedy about an eccentric, would-be rock star who hides his face at all times behind a giant cartoon-head helmet. But Fassbender, playing against type, kills it as Frank. It's a unique performance. We can't see the actor's face, so the acting is all in his voice and body language. What Fassbender does, given those limitations, is pretty remarkable. And what FRANK accomplishes as a film is also pretty noteworthy. This is a funny, heartfelt, and strange movie about the line between creative genius and madness, about success and selling out, about rock n' roll.
The film is actually presented not from Frank's point of view, but from that of a guy named Jon Burroughs. Jon, played by Domhnall Gleeson, is a young British guy, living a relatively boring middle-class life with his parents, dreaming big dreams of being a musician. He's got a decent amount of talent, but so far has used it to record pretty middling song demos that won't exactly serve as his ticket to the big time. However, his life takes a sudden strange turn when he encounters members of a band he admires - with the unpronounceable name of "Soronprfbs" - who are in need of a replacement keyboardist. Jon joins them for a gig, and though there is some resentment from the various band members, their singer and leader, Frank, takes a liking to Jon. Soon, Jon is whisked away to a remote cabin with the band, where Frank has decided they will stay until recording of their new album is complete.
Frank, as mentioned, is a bit of an iconoclast (to put it mildly). No one has ever seen him without the giant cartoon head he wears. He doesn't take it off to eat, drink, or bathe. Frank himself subscribes to a weird zen philosophy of music making. His album recording process is as much about strange rituals and training as it is about the music. He's clearly a bit off his rocker, but he also inspires a strange, cult-like worship from his band-mates. As Jon grows more comfortable with Frank, he becomes increasingly open in his desire to take Frank and the band from little-known rock curiosity to full-on pop sensation. He begins posting YouTube videos of Frank, and books the band at major festivals, including Austin's South By Southwest. But what Jon doesn't quite realize is that Frank's quest to find the perfect sound is less about winning over the masses, and more about indulging his own obsessive quirks. The band is less a band, and more a support group. A collection of lost souls who need each other, but not necessarily anyone else.
In addition to Fassbender's remarkable turn as Frank, there are a couple of other really noteworthy performances in the film. One is Gleeson as Jon. Gleeson is excellent as our POV character, and though he starts off the film as the typical ordinary-geeky-kid-who-gets-thrust-into-a-new-world-of-crazy, he evolves into something else - a semi-destructive force who becomes blindly ambitious. He starts as the classic underdog protagonist, but ends as someone who you almost have to root against. Secondly, Maggie Gyllenhaal is excellent as Clara, a morose, prickly band member who has a complex, co-dependent relationship with Frank. The character reminds me just a bit of Julianne Moore in The Big Lebowski, as Gyllenhaal makes Clara darkly funny, but also just plain dark at times. Finally, Scoot McNairy as Don, another band member and acolyte of Frank's. World-weary and full of rock n' roll wisdom, Don takes Jon under his wing, and is the one who originally recruits him into the band. Don seems the most grounded of the band, but he may actually have the most pronounced issues. In any case, it's a funny and tragic turn from McNairy - definitely an actor to keep an eye on.
Director Lenny Abrahamson is not someone I was really familiar with before now, but he's now leapfrogged onto my movie-watching radar. What's impressive is that FRANK is both unbelievably odd and quirky, yet also has a realness to it that gives it a surprising humanity. There's a very delicate tonal balance achieved here. The movie is really funny at times, but it has scenes - including a nakedly emotional ending sequence - that are quite raw. There's a poignancy to FRANK - and to Frank - that stems from the movie's themes about art vs. commerce and the satisfaction gained from self-fulfillment vs. the adoration of others. Is music and art about simply doing what makes you and your circle of co-conspirators happy, or is it only valid if it reaches the masses? Frank's persona seems like a gimmick designed to get attention ... but is it? Or did it start that way, only to become a personal prison? Or was it, all along, just one person's crazy way of coping with major issues?
Regardless, FRANK looks at the madness of music-making, and the insanity of the search for rock n' roll perfection - with a keen satirical eye and a lot to say about art, music, and the human condition. Fassbender's performance is a brave one - and it further proves that the guy is as multifaceted and talented an actor as they come. This is a fascinating, strange film, and one of the year's most interesting indies.
My Grade: A-