At any moment Frank (2014; dir. Leonard Abrahamson) follows one or more of several paths. There is the existential drama of a talented rock musician who hides his identity from the world: why? Is his large cartoon-like mask a rejection of the cult of celebrity, a way of focusing his audience on the music, an embrace of privacy? There is the path of an outsider, Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson) invited to join a band that already tilts on the edge of sanity when its keyboardist tries to drown himself? Burroughs brings ambition and new ideas that threaten the band and its members (the film is told mainly from his point of view, so that it takes us a while to recognize how damaging his intrusion into the band has been). Or do we follow the path of mental illness? At various moments this film, titled after the name of the band member who always wears a large mask over his head, follows one or more of these paths. It’s at its best when it follows the first path, at its most melodramatic when it follows the second, and its most maudlin and sentimental when it follows the third.
Michael Fassbinder plays Frank, and for most of the film that means we hear his voice only. We don’t see his face. For all we know Fassbinder could be providing the voice while another anonymous body wears the mask. But he throws himself fully into the role of a character who seems both talented and demented.
It’s never clear whether the band’s music is meant to be seriously good or a joke. Is this performance art, cutting-edge music, or a parody? It’s not clear how seriously the film takes itself. It’s only in the final scene that we really get to hear the band perform, and what at first starts out as a pathetic and muling caterwaul ends up being a really good song. (But who am I to pass such judgments?—I’m 64 and this music, not to mention this film, probably doesn’t aim at people like me). I find Frank a dark comedy that lapses towards the end into sentimentality.
All the members of the band, with perhaps the exception of the intruder keyboardist Burroughs, seem to totter on the verge of mental illness, and the band itself seems the incarnation of neurosis and self-preoccupied narcissism. This is what I found most interesting about the film. Maggie Gyllenhaal is good as the band member who resents Burroughs and secretly loves Frank.