katrinaolson.ca - KO Review of FRANK @CUFF 2014 Opening Gala

Posted on Tuesday, April 08, 2014 at 12:00 PM

KO Review of FRANK @CUFF 2014 Opening Gala

by Katrina Olson-Mottahed

2014′s Calgary Underground Film Festival opened with acclaimed Irish director Lenny Abrahamson’s new film FRANK.

Before FRANK, the film was preceded by the very hilarious short animation The Chaperone (Neil Rathbone and Fraser Munden, Canada 2013). A true story about a teacher chaperoning a school dance in the 1970′s crashed by a biker gang. The Chaperone and another teacher end up in a huge brawl with 15-20 bikers and kick some serious butt. Between the exploding piñatas, the crayon and pen animations cleverly combined, this short had the whole theatre roaring in laughter before the mood changed to the more mellow dramatic comedy of FRANK.

FRANK opens with a quirky looking ginger, named Jon (Domhnall Gleeson from About Time) walking down the street trying to create a song inside his head. Jon tweets his on-screen text about trying to compose songs on his electric keyboard connected to his computer in his bedroom in his parents house. He works in an office, dresses slightly nerdy and seems awkward in his cubical at his office job. He notices while waiting for the bus after work, some police officers trying to prevent a man from drowning himself. As he watches, a man in a fedora standing beside him, called Don (Scoot McNairy) with a band van spelling “Soronprfs” on the side of it. The same name Jon noticed in a band poster on the street earlier in the film. Jon turns to Don and says “Aren’t you the band playing tonight?” Don replies “not without our keyboard player” who meanwhile is still trying to drown himself before them. Jon announces to Don that he plays keyboards and he told by Don to show up at the stage door to play the concert at 9pm. Jon can’t believe his luck.


Jon shows up at the dingy lounge that has a very sparse audience. The four band members are all playing random experimental sounding music, and a very confused Jon stands on stage in front of the keyboard frozen…then Frank (Michael Fassbender) makes his appearance in his large prosthetic smiley mask that he directly plugs into the PA system. Some of the bands equipment starts to spark causing chaos when Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) throws a beer at Don for not continuing to play music through the technical difficulties. The member of the band start fighting and then leave the stage, leaving Jon and Frank standing silently in disbelief.

The next day, Jon goes back to his office job and on with his very average and normal little life. Randomly, Jon’s phone rings and Don is on the other end of the line asking him to join the Soronprfs as their new keyboard player because Frank said Jon’s presence at the previous performance was “cherishable”, not “perishable” like Don originally heard. Jon happily obliges and the next day is picked up curb side in the band van. They all drive to a lake facing cabin in the woods. Don shows Jon his new room and tell him they will be staying there until their album is recorded in full. Jon was unaware that he wouldn’t be making it back to work after the week-end. Jon is visible physically and mentally different from the rest of the band. They are hipsters and he is awkwardly conventional in appearance. He asks Don many questions about Frank and the large mask he never takes off (not to eat, sleep or even shower). Don tells him to “just go with it”. Jon accepts that answer but still wonders “What goes on inside Frank’s head?” Don opens up to Jon about his fetish for mannequins and Frank’s deep intriguing musical genius.

The first jam session with the band, Jon releases how amazingly inspiring Frank is as a composer and musical artist. Clara insists that Frank pushes the rest of the band members to their “farthest corners”. Frank insists they all start from scratch and have a session playing music with anything and everything to create a fresh sound. The band’s music is very experimental and Clara clearly doesn’t think Jon fits in or adds anything with his fleshy bony fingers that press on keys they are told to. Gyllenhaal’s character is so aggressive and intense, but Jon stands up to her insisting he belongs. Frank nicknames Jon “The Ginger Bird” and takes him under his wing. Conflict arises when a German family arrives at the cabin, which they had rented to record their entire album, but their album hasn’t been recorded yet. Frank takes the wife of the German couple outside for a walk, speaks to her in fluent German, they hold hands, spin around in blissful circles and helps her find what’s really in her soul. The German family leaves and Jon offers to spend his financial “nest egg” his deceased grandfather left him in order for the band to extend their stay in the cabin until their album is recorded.

Jon videos his experiences with the Soronpfrs, posts them on YouTube and tweets them. His fan base and followers grow as they get closer to completing the recording of the album. They work constantly over 11 months on completing the album. The entire band seems completely relieved and satisfied when it’s done. Jon grew a huge beard and starts smoking while he struggled to fit in with the experience of living with the dysfunctional band members in the cabin. Visually at this point Jon looks like a hipster musician adapting to his new life with his band mates. He “finds his abusive childhood” through his struggle to fit in and to have a damaged place as inspiration for his art, one deep enough to pull music from (like the brilliance Frank exhibits in his music). Jon finally fits in. He wakes up one morning and goes outside to smoke a cigarette on the porch, he sees what looks like Frank hung by his neck in a tree. When all the members rush out to take him down from the tree they realize it was actually Don in Frank's mask. There was an obvious relief by the band members when they pulled off the mask and discovered it wasn’t Frank who had hung himself.

The band gives Don a Scandinavian norse funeral, where his deceased body is laid in a boat and offerings are put around his body (like a leg from a mannequin he was once so fond of) then set the boat on fire and pushed it out into the lake. The next day Clara and Frank retrieve the boat and put Don’s ashes into one of the empty supplement cans (Frank lives off nutritional supplement shakes because he can only consume liquids with his mask on his head which he never takes off). Jon keeps tweeting about the antics of the band and is contacted by the music festival SXSW to perform with the Soronprfs. Clara get angry because she doesn’t care about their music being liked, she is a true artist in the sense she makes are for art’s sake. Jon convinces Frank and the rest of the members that SXSW will be great exposure for them against Clara’s disapproval. Clara threatens to stab Jon if SXSW doesn’t work out like he claims it’s going to.

That night Jon and Clara intensely make love in the hot tub. Afterwards she tells Jon she finds him disgusting and admits to being in love with Frank. She also admits to controlling Frank because it helps him live creatively balanced. Clara discusses that previously Frank was in a mental institution because of his mental illness. Clara’s love for Frank is driven by here fear of losing him back to his mental illness.

The band travels all the way to Austin, Texas (from the cabin in the woods of Ireland) where Frank decides to spread Don’s ashes in the desert. Frank does a beautiful eulogy and begins sprinkling what he thought was Don’s ashes into the sand until Clara points out to him by shoving a handful of the tin’s contents into her mouth, that he mixed up the tins and this was actually the powdered nutritional supplement he was spreading around the desert sand and not Don’s ashes. This scene really illustrated the simplicity of Frank’s character and the nurturing of Clara to the mentally ill Frank.


Franks mental illness is amplified later that night when the band goes to check in tot he SXSW media event and Frank begins his erratic behavior. He stammers and slurs his words when asked questions about the band and is obviously having anxiety about performing the following evening. Frank and Clara are missing when Jon looks for them following the media event. He found them in an alley, Clara coddling Frank and blowing heavily on his neck to calm him down. Jon convinces Frank everything will be ok and to go back to the hotel. Once he agrees and leaves, Clara stabs Jon just like she had promised. Jon films the entire fiasco and puts it on twitter. Clara gets arrested and the other two band members decide not to perform with Jon and Frank. The SXSW performance is a disaster of epic proportions. Frank and Jon end up kicked out of the festival, depressed in a dumpy motel on the out skirts of town. Frank confesses he is not ok without Clara. In a fit of rage Jon tries to pull off Frank’s mask causing him to flee only to be hit by a car and then vanish. While Jon is chasing him, he also gets hit by a car and ends up in the hospital. Jon tweets that Frank is lost and asks for help using the trending topic hash tag #FindFrank. Eventually after a long goose chase, Jon finds Frank in Kansas at his parents place, not wearing his mask. He discusses Frank’s mental illness with his parents and discovers the origin of the mask. Frank’s father had made it for him when he was 9 years old because he asked for a mask for a costume party. There really was no costume party, Frank just wanted to hide behind something that gave him comfort where he felt he could be more of want he wanted to be and freely express himself (but also hide). Frank had scars all around his skull and face, no explanation is given for this.

Frank goes to a small bar to hear the band play. Jon is seated at the bar also watching. Frank walks up to the stage where Clara is singing and when she finishes her bizarrely breathy light house man song, she begins playing music with the band. Frank starts speaking lyrics. First it starts as just descriptive adjectives for the bar and then it quickly turns to brilliant lyrics to a song when he is handed the microphone. The band is playing and Clara becomes almost organically so passionately involved in performing. Tears stream down Frank’s severely scarred face while he mentions “fiddly digits” reminiscent of Jon’s keyboard playing hands Clara cursed in the first quarter of the film. Cut to Jon walking away from the bar down the street, looking the way he did in the beginning of the film not physically or mentally fitting in with the functional dysfunction that is the Soronprfs.

Considering the trailer portrays this films as a comedy, it gets pretty dark. Maggie Gyllenhall does a superb job as Clara. Her intensely controlling aggression towards Jon translates so well, you feel uncomfortable when the two are in close proximity on screen. However, the explosion of sexual tension was rather unexpected between the two. It was as if Clara wanted to show Jon my fornication with him, she was the Alpha bitch and that even though she let him inside her, he is still repulsive toward her. Gyllenhaal’s acting was brilliantly executed. Frank’s character was challenging to grasp. Firstly because you don’t see Fassbender’s facial expressions, they are only spoken and visible through body language or from how other characters describe him. Secondly, he is completely unpredictable, which in turn makes him both charming and alarming at times. There was a female drummer in their band who hardly said two words the entire film but mutely mirrored Clara’s disapproval of Jon along with a guitar player who only speaks French asadie of the odd word of English.

The audience could relate to Jon. He wanted so badly to fit in and do something great, but his efforts were merely mis-interpreted and lost on the group of misfits. In the end, he realizes this a walks away with his “abusive childhood” experiences in his soul, minus his nest-egg.

I have to say, the programming of Calgary Underground Film Festival is pretty spectacular this year. CUFF is quickly becoming my favourite Calgary Film Festival. To see what other films are playing at CUFF click HERE.

* Film Photos courtesy of Element Pictures


NOTE: The showtimes listed on CalgaryMovies.com come directly from the theatres' announced schedules, which are distributed to us on a weekly basis. All showtimes are subject to change without notice or recourse to CalgaryMovies.com.