Inside the head of a mentally ill genius

Frank (M). Director: Lenny Abrahamson. Starring: Michael Fassbender, Scoot McNairy, Maggie Gyllenhaal. 95 minutes

Mental illness is no laughing matter. Except when it is.

At the centre of this offbeat comedy by Irish filmmaker Abrahamson is Frank (Fassbender), an avant-garde musician who spends his entire life with his face concealed inside a comically oversized head. The film milks the slapstick potential of this inherently absurd affectation; we're invited to laugh at Frank snaking a straw up inside his mask in order to consume his liquid meals, or showering with a plastic bag tied over his gargantuan cranium.

But Frank is clearly mentally ill. If the 'security blanket' of the ever-present fake head is not evidence enough, the endlessly talented Fassbender's studious physical performance leaves no doubt. He is all slouched shoulders and shuffling feet, as he conjoins crippling neuroses to personable charm and on-stage charisma, all from within the confines of the character's inscrutable prosthetic visage.

Frank is the lead singer of an eccentric pop band, whose unpronounceable name — Soronprfbs — echoes its painstakingly obscure music. He is regarded as a genius by his bandmates, notably by troubled manager Don (McNairy) and by Frank's fiery-tempered muse, Clara (Gyllenhaal). Also by the band's newest member, starry-eyed keyboard player and would-be songwriter Jon (Gleeson), who is also the film's protagonist and narrator.

The boyish Jon can see that Frank is ill, but regards him with an almost flippant sense of awe. He has lived a sheltered life (he is 30 and still lives with his parents), and his naivety seems endless. Early in the film we see him sitting on a beach, trying to twist mundane observations into melodious pop lyrics. When he sits down at his keyboard later to cement the music he hears in his head, he realises that he's ripping off a Madness song.

His creative inertia is in direct contrast to the idiosyncratic but oddly infectious sounds produced by Soronprfbs. This causes Jon to explicitly envy the mental illness experienced by Frank and Don, and the creative horizons that this seems to have opened up for them. This is heinously glib; a fact that hits home when a member of the ensemble commits suicide during the recording of the band's debut album, at an isolated lakeside cabin.

The film undergoes a tonal shift at this point, from quirky to bleak. Jon's naivety borders on narcissism; he is oblivious to the repercussions of his actions on those around him. He has been posting videos from the recording sessions online and is under the impression that tens of thousands of YouTube views represents some kind of juggernaut. He persuades Frank to take part in a music festival, where he believes fame awaits.

He claims it's about putting Frank in the spotlight where he belongs, but it's obvious he's mostly interested in riding the genius' coattails. He ignores warnings from Clara that the festival is a bad idea, and realises too late that her vicious protectiveness of Frank stems from a better understanding of his illness. Needless to say, the gig goes badly. Things get decidedly ugly, and the blame falls squarely — and fairly — with Jon.

The film does not quite sustain the tonal shift, its tragic final act sitting uneasily with the lighter slapstick tone of the first two thirds. That being said, its sober denouement, in which we finally see Frank unmasked, is heartbreaking; certainly Jon is left with a deeper, wiser understanding of both the fragility and strength of human beings, and of the perennial but assailable traumas experienced by those who live with mental illness.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Scoot McNairy, Lenny Abrahamson, Frank

 

 

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