If You Have to Mask

Michael Fassbender, in search of a new challenge, covers up in Frank.

Michael Fassbender in Frank.

Courtesy of Runaway Fridge Productions

It’s easy to see why Michael Fassbender, a blindingly handsome movie star whose career is ascending so fast he seems at risk for the bends, would take the title role in Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank. Why sign on to this modestly budgeted comic drama to play a mentally ill musician who wears a large papier-maché head over his own at all times, including while he eats, sleeps, and showers? Because Fassbender is an actor who, as watching any one of his performances makes clear, is as all-in as they come. As the enigmatic Frank—loosely based on the late English singer and performance artist Chris Sievey—Fassbender seems to revel in the chance to test his limits, expressing himself through gesture and voice rather than the power of that reliably camera-seducing face. Fassbender spending nearly an entire movie obscured by a giant fake head is such a had-me-at-hello idea that it’s disappointing that Frank never plumbs the fascinating questions it raises about performance, group dynamics, and mental health.

As Fassbender wears it, that big spherical head—very similar in design to that of Frank Sidebottom, the fictional character Sievey assumed only onstage—does seem strangely expressive. When someone insults or frightens Frank—which happens more and more as this increasingly dark comedy goes along—the bright-blue painted eyes of the mask almost give the impression of widening in reproach. It’s as soulful a performance you could hope for from an actor who, again, is wearing an enormous round fake head, and Fassbender’s hands and body are as deft at conveying meaning as a mime’s. Yet I left the film feeling I had neither gotten to know the man beneath the mask nor understood why he had assumed it in the first place.

The film is scripted by Peter Straughan and Jon Ronson, based on the latter’s memoir about playing in a band with the mysterious Sievey, and perhaps because of this provenance, the screenwriters make the mistake of focusing on the character who’s Ronson’s stand-in, Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson). Jon, a colorless schlub with a dull office job, lives with his parents in a small Irish town and dreams of being a songwriter despite a conspicuous lack of talent. (Jon’s rambling early compositions were written by Gleeson himself.) When a band with an unpronounceable name, the Soronprfbs, comes to town, Jon winds up sitting in for their keyboard player, who’s in the hospital after an attempt to drown himself.

As becomes clear at that first gig, the suicidal keyboardist isn’t the only messed-up Soronprfb. When Frank steps to the mic and begins to sing—an incantatory flow of nonsense that emerges from a speaker on the throat of his mask—Jon is spellbound by his charisma. After the show, Don (Scoot McNairy), the band’s manager/groupie, explains to Jon that, enormous artificial head notwithstanding, Frank is “the sanest cat I’ve ever known.” Don and the musicians—Theremin player and muse Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), guitarist Baraque (François Civil), and percussionist Nana (Carla Azar)—all seem to regard Frank with an esteem that’s almost cultlike. They seek his counsel on profound personal matters, willingly collaborate in his sometimes-bizarre jam-session experiments, and ask no questions about the head.

Before Jon knows it, he’s quit his job, replaced the band’s keyboard player, and offered up his nest egg so they can all hole up at a ramshackle rental house while recording their first album. The other members of the band, Clara in particular, revile Jon as a needy wannabe, but Frank encourages him to stay on with them and develop his songwriting gifts. There ensues a pastoral idyll that’s at once romantic and sinister, a vision of a utopian art-making collective suspended over the void. It’s the best stretch of the film by far, particularly in the one-on-one scenes between Jon and Frank, who proves to be a very approachable fellow once you get past the fake head. “Why cover anything up?” he asks his new spiritual protégé, his painted-on face displaying no trace of irony. Frank’s attempt to prove to Jon that a song can be about anything at all makes for the film’s best musical moment as, acoustic guitar in hand, Frank improvises a lovely poetic ode to a stray piece of yarn sticking out of a blanket.

Frank’s biggest mistake is its choice to frame its true protagonist’s story, Great Gatsby–style, through the admiring gaze of a secondary character. Unlike Gatsby’s observant and lyrical Nick Carraway, the dull Jon is kind of a drag as an audience proxy. When his fellow band members inform him in no uncertain terms that he’s a no-talent hanger-on with a hunger for Frank’s approbation that borders on the pathetic, the audience hasn’t seen much evidence to contradict that view.

The scrawny, carrot-haired Gleeson (currently onscreen with his father Brendan Gleeson in Calvary, he also played Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter movies) is an appealing enough actor to sell this noncharacter for a while. But the fact remains that Jon’s struggles to settle into the band’s communal life and his goal of amassing views for their YouTube channel are ultimately less interesting than the question of what would drive his bandmate to, say, live his entire life inside a massive painted head.

Both Frank and Frank fall apart fast after the band leaves its remote country compound and flies to Texas to play its biggest-ever show at the South by Southwest music festival. As Frank’s true fragility and inability to function in society bubble to the surface, the film’s tone shifts into an unpleasant mix of show-business melodrama, indie quirk, and after-school-special sanctimony. By the time Frank is ready to consider emerging from beneath the head—I won’t reveal how, when, or whether he does so—the movie hasn’t proven itself able to contend with the larger moral questions it raises. Did Jon’s subsidization of the band simply enable the pathological continuation of what was, in essence, a cult built around the delusions of a sick man? Should we see the Soronprfbs as an endearing crew of misfits or a sad bunch of parasitic exploiters? And isn’t Abrahamson’s deadpan presentation of the band’s adventures, often accompanied by merrily plinking incidental music, a little cute given the gravity of the issues at hand? Frank asks hard questions about mental illness—indeed, their implicit presence gives that middle act its urgency—but the conclusions it allows itself seem curiously muffled, as if emerging from beneath a—well, you know.