“Children building castles in the sand in my town…” Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), pale and red-haired, squints at the ocean, pen and paper in hand. We hear his reedy voiceover as he struggles to get lyrical inspiration from his suburban surroundings. (“Lady in the red coat, whatcha doin’ with that bag?”) After a day of failed attempts, he tweets about “working hard at songwriting all day” and goes home to share a casserole with his parents.
This sad, struggling songwriter is our protagonist in Abrahamson’s strange and wonderful black comedy Frank. After their keyboardist tries to drown himself, alternative band Soronprfbs (never confidently pronounced by anyone in the film) has Jon fill in for a gig—and before he knows it, he’s being swept away with them to Vetno, a cloistered cabin in Ireland where they will push themselves to their furthest musical corners and record an album.
The band’s frontman is the enigmatic Frank (Michael Fassbender), who wears an enormous papier-mâché head over his own head at all times—a reference to the real Frank, a creation of British comedian Chris Sievey. The rest of the band consists of their tortured manager, Don (Scoot McNairy); a French, floppy-haired guitarist (François Civil); a taciturn drummer (Carla Azar); and a hostile theremin-player named Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who has no problem expressing her displeasure with anyone or anything around her—Jon in particular. (“Someone needs to punch you in the face,” she tells him sweetly.) Nonetheless, Jon is determined to make his mark on the band. Their sound is eclectic, to say the least—Talking Heads meets Pink Floyd meets The Doors with nonsensical lyrics—but Jon feels that they have the potential to make it big, and he plans to make that happen.
Frank is a peculiar and incredible balancing act of dark realism and hilariousness. At first glance, the characters are absurd—Frank shuffling around with his giant head, Clara glowering with tiny white circles painted inexplicably all over her face—but they soon reveal themselves to have real depth and dimension. We grow to see their vulnerabilities and to care about them. But by the same token, just as a scene is becoming intense and powerful, something funny will happen (Frank hits his head on a pole and stumbles backwards, Clara calmly stabs Jon in the leg) and we’re brought back to the realm of the absurd, laughing with surprise. The film is comprised of layers of ridiculousness and realism and ridiculousness again, creating an overall effect that’s bittersweet, funny, and uncomfortable. And it’s perfect, because isn’t that the artistic process? Ridiculous, real, weird, vulnerable. Sad. Full of complex layers. Uncomfortable when you fail, exhilarating when you’re inspired.
But how does one get inspired? That’s the question that haunts Jon as he continues his pathetic attempts at songwriting. Meanwhile, Frank finds inspiration in everything, from the eerie shrieks of Clara’s theramin to the scratching of a toothbrush. And that inspiration is clear in his compositions. Soronprfbs’s music, while certainly unusual, is compelling because of that inspired energy. Where does Frank get it? From his stint in a mental hospital? From a dark and tortured childhood? Does he simply have a God-given gift? Jon can’t figure it out, and his experience in the band is colored by his envy and frustration. I was reminded of Salieri’s jealous agony in Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984) (incredible movie, one of my all-time favorites), especially as Jon’s unhappiness begins to motivate him to manipulate the band and, most importantly, Frank.
Frank is really the centerpiece of the film. Fassbender renders him surprisingly charismatic for someone who spends his life behind a cartoonish mask. He’s friendly and down-to-earth, kindly supportive of Jon and all his mediocre compositions. But Frank is also complicated; for how much confidence he has while songwriting or performing, he’s otherwise fragile and easily influenced. It’s striking from the first moment we see him: after an energetic musical performance, he stands limply on the stage until Clara unplugs his microphone, turns him around, and walks him off the stage with her hands on his shoulders. He’s a mystery, and much of the film consists of the band members fighting for control over him and attention from him, motivated by jealousy and admiration.
Frank’s fragility is important, because ultimately this is a movie about the humanity behind artistic achievement. It’s an examination of what it means to be an artist, to have integrity, to be talented, to be inspired, to have an audience. The film doesn’t offer any explicit answers, but contemplates these topics with creativity and nuance, never taking itself too seriously. Overall its greatest achievement is succeeding in being at once intelligent, thought provoking, and enjoyable to watch—a rare treat in general, but an especially welcome and unexpected one in a film about a man with a papier-mâché head.