(Leonard Abrahamson, 2014)
Frank does many difficult things extremely well.
It is a black comedy which is, at it's core, about mental illness. Not only that; it addresses lots of the unpalatable truths of human interaction - insecurity, ambition, weakness, jealousy. And it is funny despite that.
It creates an interesting portrayal of musicians at work which lacks most of the usual cliches applied to musicians in cinema. And the music is pretty good, too.
One of it's central characters spends 95% of the story wearing a papier mache head. And this only makes him more hypnotic.
It follows Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a frustrated young office drone from a seaside British town with dreams of rock stardom from the time he encounters Soronpfrbs, an American band on a shambolic tour in a battered old van. Their singer and leader is Frank (Michael Fassbender), who constantly wears that head. He eats in it, sleeps in it, showers in it (wrapped inside a plastic bag). He also seems to be a sort of genius; improvising songs at will, inspired by everything, dragging the rest of the band along in his wake.
After their keyboard player attempts suicide, Jon fills in on keyboards for a gig in his hometown, then gets a phonecall offering him the role on a long-term basis. He travels to rural Ireland, where they set to work on an album, the recording of which takes months. During this time, the web of co-dependencies and rivalries in the band, mostly revolving around Clara (Maggie Gylenhall) grows more complex, as Jon pushes for a more commercial, "likeable" direction, surreptitiously filming their sessions and posting the results on YouTube, where they develop a cult following (this film makes excellent use of twitter as a comedic device). That following results in the offer of a gig at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas. But Frank starts to feel the pressure of performing before a large audience as the band starts to crumble around him, and Jon struggles to hold everything together.
Abrahamson has a gift for observation and for texture; and Frank is full of funny, precisely nuanced scenes in vivid locations, each of them ably captured. The characters seem like they are types, exaggerated for comedic effect...until the pathos starts to seep into this story, and the melancholy heart of Frank himself and of Dan (Scoot McNairy) becomes evident. This is contrasted with Jon's desperate desire to be a star despite a shortfall of talent, and Clara's manic need for control.
Occasionally we even see them play music, a sort of droning eclectic mix of post-rock and electronic experimentation that actually is interesting and good.
Fassbender is as magnetic as ever, using beautifully concise movement and body language to let that blankly surprised giant head act for him. It works. It's hard to drag your eyes away from him whenever he is onscreen.
Gleeson gives great support as the wide-eyed, painfully human Jon, while Gyllenhall is deadpan deliciousness as Clara, casually devastating with her brutal one-line dismissals. The script is full of sly wit, but it is tender to its characters too. All of this, and it still manages to say moving, near-profound things about creativity, inspiration and selfishness. It is magnificent, and quite, quite unique.