To Be 'Frank,' This Unique Movie Has Surprising Emotional Depth

Inspired by a true story and with a range of eccentric characters, Lenny Abrahamson’s new film works, even if we don't always know why.

Frank Directed by Lenny Abrahamson; written by Jon Ronson, Peter Straughan; with Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, Francois Civil, Carla Azar

Talent, the absence of talent, talent rooted in madness – these are some of the themes that Irish director Lenny Abrahamson’s “Frank” raises, but never really explores in depth. I wasn’t always sure what the movie wanted from me, but for some reason I responded to it emotionally, even if it left me feeling rather strange.

Like many of its characters, “Frank” is an odd, eccentric film; it seems dazed, but was actually inspired by a true story. Jon Ronson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Straughan, took the idea from an article he wrote about the British comic and musician Chris Sievey, who died in 2010 at the age of 54. Sievey (of whom, I must admit, I had never heard before seeing the movie) had a comic alter ego called Frank Sidebottom, whose puppet head he sported over his own in performances. The puppet’s eyes are open wide in perpetual amazement, and its tidy black hair brings to mind a British civil servant.

That same puppet’s head covers the head of Frank, the lead singer for the band on which Abrahamson’s movie focuses. Frank is the ghost that wanders through the film, a headless rock musician played by Michael Fassbender, whose face we can only imagine beneath its cover.

Frank is not the only damaged member of the band, which wants to make a new album of avant-garde rock; each one of the musicians involved seems about to explode, especially the always-scowling Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal, clearly enjoying herself in an intense performance). Enter the hero, who represents everything that they are not – normalcy, or perhaps mediocrity. Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is an average English bloke who dreams of being a composer but does not really have what it takes. A series of circumstances I won’t describe here leads him to join the band, which has a deliberately unpronounceable name (just try it; it’s called “Soronprfbs”).

Jon gives up his old life and job to join the band members at the remote house in Ireland where they are trying, none too successfully, to make their album. While Clara is openly 
hostile, Frank takes a liking to Jon, perhaps because he is so ordinary. It also doesn’t hurt that Jon has inherited some money, which allows the band to stay in the country house even after their funds run out. About halfway through the movie, the plot takes an unexpected turn and moves from Ireland to Texas, where the band goes to appear in a festival. It’s hard to imagine a sharper change of scenery, and Abrahamson – with the help of cinematographer James Mather – makes expressive use of the switch. In America, the volatile set of relationships between the characters finally reaches its point of combustion.

Strange, as I’ve said, and eccentric; but beyond that, “Frank” has a pain in it that, while its origins are not always clear, provides a certain emotional depth. The movie works, even if we don’t always know why and how and never gain any real insight into Frank or Jon. It doesn’t really matter: everyone in the movie is stuck in some kind of emotional burrowing, whether implied or obvious. They live on the wacky edge of things, and Jon’s arrival there destabilizes the seeming unity of their existence. That is the source of the movie’s drama, to which Abrahamson and his screenwriters give a near-abstract feel, with gaping holes that somehow don’t keep it from becoming a work of elusive uniqueness.

Some will enjoy “Frank,” others will find it off-putting; it’s the kind of movie that invites such opposed reactions. But it isn’t just another bland picture, and that is already a virtue.