In the last days of 2014 I have finally seen an additional contender for favorite film of the year: “Frank,” with Michael Fassbender, whose glorious human head is covered throughout the film by a large papier mache one to portray Frank, a strange but brilliant musician. In contrast to this fake face is the open, naïve face of Domhnall Gleeson, who joins Frank’s band and changes his life.
Gleeson is touching as Jon, a frustrated wannabe musician, and his desire to move from extreme music appreciator to actual music maker is rather touching and perfectly expressed though his earnest but lame songwriting efforts. We see him arriving at his parents’ home, rushing to his mixed-tape stuffed bedroom, and hurriedly getting down his bad song ideas before he forgets them. He them promptly tweets about these “events.”
His suburban life is changed when a group of bizarre, committed outsider musicians plays in his town, and a suicide attempt by their keyboardist gives him a chance to play with them. He stands onstage thrilling at his good luck, when Frank walks on, wearing a wetsuit and his fake head, which is a friendly but blank expression on a kind of oblong, extremely large face. Of course, none of the other band members bats an eyelash, and a tantrum by Maggie Gyllenhaal, the most forceful member of the band, ends the gig abruptly.
Nevertheless, as Jon toils at his cubicle the next week, a call comes in from the manager (the name of the band is an unpronounceable series of consonants) asking Jon to join to band for what he thinks is a weekend gig in Ireland, but which ends up as a year-long album recording session in a rented cabin by a lake.
We spend a lot of the movie isolated with this ensemble of musicians, and their wonderfully quirky personalities. Frank’s emphasis is on process, to say the least, and, as seen through Jon’s adoring eyes, these painfully earnest artists are respected, not mocked. Disdainful of Jon and his mainstream ideas, they are all true outsiders, and also suffer mental illness to various degrees.
Behind his fake head, Frank is a kind and charismatic man whose influence verges on that of a cult leader, albeit to a very small cult. Fassbender creates a fully realized and fascinating character without the benefit of his (dreamy) face, and it’s an amazing performance. The gimmick of the head makes you notice the film just as it makes people notice their band, but the story is sincere, delightful and moving.
It is Jon and his rather mild attempts to promote the band that bring them uncomfortably face-to-face with the real world. Posting videos of Frank and the others to YouTube, Jon quietly gains some attention for the band, and they get invited to play at the South by Southwest festival.
Hardly a fame seeking media whore, Jon is nevertheless light years ahead of the others in terms of ambition, and their initial reluctance to attend is replaced by far more serious problems when they actually arrive in Texas. Frank’s head may be a novelty to his YouTube followers, but it is a serious situation for him, and he is far more fragile than Jon realizes.
The gentle and low-key conclusion to the film is a quietly beautiful testament to the capacity of art to heal and connect, however limited that healing may be. In a film starring a papier mache face, it was one of the most realistically optimistic moments I have ever seen, and one which I’m going to think about for a long time.