PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):
Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), an aspiring songwriter, witnesses a man trying to drown himself while walking along the beach of his town. The man is taken to the hospital and Jon talks to Don (Scoot McNairy), who explains the man was a keyboardist in an experimental band, the Soronprfbs, managed by him. Jon mentions that he plays keyboards and is invited to play with them that night. Jon goes along and meets the rest of the band, all of whom are reluctant about Jon, except Frank (Michael Fassbender), the band leader who wears a papier-mâché mask. The concert goes well, until Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) breaks her theremin and storms offstage.
Frank invites Jon to become a full-time member. He accompanies them to Ireland, where they will record their first album in a remote cabin for the next year. Clara is very antipathic towards Jon, and continually torments him for being mediocre and having no talent.
Don explains to Jon that he wanted to be a songwriter too, and just like Jon lacked talent and was terrible. He plays a song for Jon, who compliments it. Don tells Jon that Frank is special, and that eventually Jon will believe that he either can be Frank or could at least be like him, but that it is impossible because Frank is unique. Don implies that this realization will hurt Jon the most, and that this is what is causing Don to be depressed himself. However, Jon feels that if he could just have hard experiences that he assumes Frank had (with his mental illness and believed hard childhood) that it would fuel him and get him to take the next step in his creativity. Jon believes that his time with the band will be the catalyst that will make this happen.
The morning after they complete recording of their album, Jon finds Frank’s corpse hanging from a tree. He calls the rest of the band down and they remove the mask, only to find it was Don wearing Frank’s mask. Don is cremated and Jon is told that Don was the first keyboard player for Frank. Jon realizes that every keyboard player the band has had some kind of mental breakdown.
Afterwards, Jon reveals he has been posting the band’s recording sessions online. The Soronprfbs have gained a small following and have been invited to South by Southwest. Clara is against going to South by Southwest, and accuses Jon of manipulating Frank and giving him delusions of grandeur. During one of their fights, Clara and Jon’s hatred for each other turns into passion and they end up having sex, but Clara tells Jon that he disgusts her and they will never be together again. However, Frank wants to be popular and to create “extremely likable music” so he decides to go; Clara warns Jon that if things go badly in Austin she’ll stab him.
Upon arrival in Texas, Jon, Frank and Clara scatter Don’s ashes, but realize Baraque accidentally packed a canister of powdered food instead of the ashes. Afterwards, the band travels to Austin, while signing up for South by Southwest Jon and the band discover that they aren’t as popular as they thought, and that the crowd will have no idea who they are and will have never listened to their music before. Upon hearing this, Frank starts to become erratic and has a panic attack. Clara sees the changes in Frank and knows that he can’t handle this situation, so she pleads with Jon to help convince Frank to not perform and go back to their unknown status. Jon refuses and works with Frank to try to create a more likeable version of their songs. On the day before the concert, Clara and Frank disappear. Jon finds them in an alley where Clara is trying to calm Frank and get him to agree to leave.
Jon convinces Frank to ignore Clara and to do the gig. Clara stabs Jon in the leg and is later arrested by the police. Back at the hotel room Drummer Nana (Carla Azar) and guitarist Baraque (Francois Civil) accuse Jon of getting rid of Clara and quit the band. Jon and Frank become a duo. As they go onstage, Jon announces that it’s the best day of his life and begins singing one of his own songs. Frank falls over and when Jon rushes over to him to check on him, Frank tells Jon that his music is bad, suffering a nervous breakdown. Frank passes out on stage with Jon trying to revive him. The next day, Jon attempts to reason with Frank and tries to remove Frank’s head. A panicked Frank runs out of the motel room and is hit by a car. Jon gives chase but realizes Frank has escaped, leaving only remains of the mask behind. Jon subsequently gets hit by a car.
Sometime later, Jon has attempted to track down Frank, but all his attempts have failed. However, he finds a bar where Clara, Nana, and Baraque are now playing. Jon finally succeeds in tracking Frank to his hometown of Bluff, Kansas, where he is living with his parents. They explain that Frank has had mental health issues all his life and began wearing the mask as a teenager. Jon questions Frank’s parents about his childhood. They tell Jon that Frank had a loving family and a happy childhood. Jon realizes that there was no traumatic event in Frank’s life that inspired Frank to become a musical genius and his mental illness never propelled him but limited him. Jon now sees that Frank’s amazing talents aren’t from traumatic events or from his illness, that Frank’s genius was just inherent, and that he will never be able to be like him; just as Don had told him. Jon finally sees Frank without a mask, only to see a despondent man with scars on his face and bald spots on his scalp from the prolonged use of the mask. Jon apologies to Frank for ruining the band and trying to take off his mask. He then takes Frank to the bar where the band is. Frank begins to speak and they realize who he is. He begins singing and joins them onstage while Jon leaves the bar.
Ever flip through a bunch of movies and there is that one image, be it good, bad, or gruesome, that just grabs your attention? Well, that is what Frank did for me. I saw this giant Morel Orel looking head on a guy and had to see what was going on.
What is this about?
An aspiring musician joins a band of eccentrics led by an enigmatic singer — who wears a fake head — and his unstable girlfriend.
What did I like?
Performance art. Musicians are an eccentric bunch of individuals. Trust me, I am one! I can appreciate that this film takes the time to develop each of their individual eccentricities, such as Frank’s head, the French couple’s um…Frenchiness?, and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s instability. Let us not forget our main character’s insecurity. All of these quirks work to give each character some individuality, rather than having a couple of lead characters and glorified extras.
Maggie. There was a time when I had a crush on Maggie Gyllenhaal. I think it was because the girl I was dating at the time was obsessed with her brother, Jake. While I’ve moved on from her, I am always glad to see her pop up in stuff. This role seems to be the kind of indie stuff that made her a star, which is great to see again.
Theremin. Ok, raise your hand if you have ever heard of a Theremin? I don’t see many hands raised, but I would be willing to bet dollars to pesos that you have all heard it before, especially if you’ve watched classic alien sci-fi stuff such as The Day the Earth Stood Still or listened to the theme from the original Star Trek series. Man, I love how they incorporated such an underrated instrument into this film!
What didn’t I like?
SXSW. I’ve never been to South by Southwest (which just wrapped up this weekend, btw), so I can’t speak from personal experience, but it does seem to me that a band that is coming up the way Soronprfbs was would have developed a fan base, especially with the Youtube videos. Otherwise, one must question if it really is that easy to get a SXSW invite.
Music. I’ll admit that I was not blown away by the music the band was churning out. Shouldn’t a band have songs that people want to hear, rather than just some random sayings put to a beat. They might as well have been a garage band with that kind of stuff. I guess when your frontman is a guy with a giant cartoon head, you can forget everything else, right?
Dry tone. This genre of films, especially when coming from the indie world, is not known for being anything fun or exciting. I wish I could say that this changed that perception, but it didn’t. As the film went on, I did not find myself invested in any of the characters, aside from the curiosity about Frank, which quickly subsided. Had there been a more jovial tone to this flick, perhaps it wouldn’t have felt so dry and uninteresting.
Final verdict on Frank? It is most definitely an indie drama, make no mistake about that. For me, I think this is a film that took itself too seriously and could have done with a bit of levity. Still, there are some great performances and a story that needed to be told when all is said and done. I suggest you take a few minutes and let the film marinate in your brain before making a decision on where you like it or not. Do I recommend it? Yes, it is worth a shot, so try it out!
3 3/4 out of 5 stars