RELEASE DATE: December 9, 2016 (Limited and VOD)
MPAA RATING: Not yet rated
RUNTIME: 87 minutes
An efficient and direct-to-the-point bit of work, Matthew M. Ross’ Frank & Lola moves throughout its neo-noir aesthetic, punches through its storyline, and then gets out. Its brevity is both a major asset and a moderate liability – using a basic plot structure to avoid overlong diversions at the cost of developing important characters who may not be in every scene.
Yet the whole movie is presented with such a steady, cool vibe, furthered by fluid performances and gorgeous cinematography, that it’s hard to argue that Ross is somehow unable to handle the material; there’s a rocky, thin screenplay holding back quite a bit, but he sure directs the heck out of it.
Michael Shannon stars as Frank, a chef residing in Las Vegas. He has received measured acclaim within his circle of clients and contacts but has never quite hit the level of success that could have. Recently, his personal life has been largely occupied by Lola (Imogen Poots), his new girlfriend. She’s a lot younger than him, and their relationship is in that initial stage where the first bursts of white-hot intensity are only just settling in. As the two get to know each other, Lola tells Frank about the struggles of her past. The story of a particular ex stands out in particular – his name is Alan Larsson (Michael Nyqvist), and he’s a wealthy Swedish businessman.
He and Lola had a bizarre, unhealthy union, one which negatively impacted her life in the long run. The details are shrouded in mystery and half-truths. Frank learns that Alan now lives in Paris and, upon flying there for a job interview, decides to stick around a few more days and track down this man, with impulses of revenge on the brain. He is subsequently led into a torturous set of revelations, including ones about Lola, and is sucked into a twisted web of sleazy psychosexual dynamics.
At its core, Frank & Lola is a ponderous evaluation of the ideas of revenge, jealousy and impulse. Ross, who also wrote the script, relentlessly pokes and prods the psyche of his male protagonist, progressively throwing him into more testing and exhausting scenarios and evolving both him and the story. In turn, Shannon delivers a remarkably refined performance, using body language in tandem with explicit physical and verbal cues. There’s more going on there than his scowl or his exhausted stare. What could have been little more than a character bouncing between confusion and anger instead becomes a darkly tormented individual, complexly conflicted by his own base emotions and lurid curiosity.
However, while Ross goes far in developing Frank, he doesn’t leave a lot of time for Lola. A comparatively underdeveloped catalyst leaves a lot of blank spaces on the movie’s emotional list. We are never certain of the details of her own mental status, other than regular bouts into self-destruction. We know she has obscured the truth of her past, with only explanations given in little more than part of a scene here or there.
In effect, the character, or at least the idea of her, becomes a form of negotiation between Frank and Alan but is never given a real chance to blossom into a fully realized part of the proceedings in the same way that the other two leads are. Imogen Poots’ performance is often ‘just alright,’ not because of her but because she isn’t given very much to do.
Cinematographer Eric Koretz stages interiors and exteriors with an emphasis on overhead lighting, whether it be the yellow incandescent bulbs of a nice restaurant or the stiff brightness of streetlights. In doing this, a sense of elevation is portrayed – there is always something going on above what is seen, as if the characters have descended down below a particular point. Koretz and Ross keenly play with visual motifs like this, which provides for a fun watch, even when the screenplay falters.
Frank & Lola is massively benefitted by this aesthetic intuition, as well as great acting (from Shannon and Nyqvist in particular) and a desire to study the dark, weapon-like emotions swirling beneath the surface of the storyline. It may not always work or come together in the right ways, but Ross has firmly established himself as a confident, strong and visually-oriented filmmaker with this genuinely solid debut.