The strangest thing about Frank, a film which Michael Fassbender spends almost exclusively wearing a giant mask over his face, is how un-strange it is. You’d think that the mask would be a prime indication that this is a symbolic, absurdist whatsit, not necessarily meant to be taken at face value. But, as playful as it is, Lenny Abrahamson’s film is mostly a surprisingly earnest story about the compromises and conflicts of art, stardom, and mental illness.
The film opens on aspiring musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) as he tries to come up with song lyrics while staring at a beach in his seaside British town. He dreams up the kind of painful verses you might occasionally sing to yourself in the shower to hear how awful they sound. (“Lady in the red coat, what you doing with that bag? … Lady in the blue coat, do you know the lady in the red coat?” ) His words are bad, his ideas uninspired, with song titles like “Suburbia.” But he yearns to leave behind this comfortably uneventful life, in which he lives with his parents and has a stultifying desk job. Help (of a kind) arrives when he comes across a man trying to drown himself on a beach one day; it turns out that this is the keyboardist for a small, touring experimental-rock band called Soronprfbs. Now they need a keyboardist, and Jon can play the three chords requested, so he’s in.
The band is led by the mercurial though chummy Frank (Fassbender), who spends all his time inside the aforementioned mask. It’s a hell of a thing, too — sort of a pumpkin-size, papier-mâché Playskool face, with a little vent nestled into the side. Frank never takes off the mask: For sustenance, he sips liquid meals through it. None of his bandmates, not even his erstwhile paramour and theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), have ever seen Frank without it. The band’s music is aggressive, loud, and atonal, and Frank’s singing consists largely of random words and phrases uttered without any melodic or harmonic intent. But he has a shamanistic power, too — during one rehearsal, he gives each member a bird name and then makes Jon squat and screech like he’s laying an egg. “Frank lives all the way out there, in the farthest corners,” the band’s manager, Don (Scoot McNairy), tells Jon. But Frank is clearly troubled, too: He actually has a medical certificate allowing him to wear his mask at all times. Jon is convinced that Frank’s mental troubles and his talents are one: “Miserable childhood, mental illness … How do I find that sort of inspiration?” he mutters to himself. Poor bastard: All he’s got are loving parents, a steady job, a sizable inheritance, and his mental well-being.
Jon doesn’t find such inspiration. Instead, he co-opts it. Frank, which is based loosely on the experiences of British performer Chris Sievey, a.k.a. Frank Sidebottom, eventually settles into a tale of competing artistic impulses, about the need for self-expression versus the need for fame. While Frank and his other musicians struggle with their (somewhat quirky) miseries and with their independent sound, Jon takes to Twitter and Tumblr to promote the band. He convinces them to travel to South by Southwest. He even convinces Frank to try a more friendly, poppy sound. Meanwhile, the protective, independent-minded Clara stews. And as the affable Jon begins to take over the band, the film’s quirkiness gives way to sincerity and darkness.
We know, of course, that great art is often created by troubled individuals. But Frank isn’t quite about that — the art’s not particularly great, and there’s a lingering question as to where Frank’s talent actually comes from. Rather, it’s about the paradox of fame, about the fact that those who find it are often the ones least able to handle it, and about the small ecosystems of enablers and protectors and abusers and hangers-on that often come with art and success. It’s about all the nonsense — some of it necessary nonsense — that seems to bubble up around the act of creation.
Fassbender turns out to be strangely perfect for the part. Not unlike Tom Hardy, who had to spend practically almost all of The Dark Knight Rises with most of his face covered, he can work wonders with his sheer physical presence — not just with how he moves, but also with how he stands still. Frank at times seems like a dynamo of random, freewheeling energy, and other times like a puppet, waiting to be moved — a perfect physical correlative for the push-pull of art and influence that the film portrays. It’s a beautiful performance, and it makes this weirdly sincere and gentle film memorable.