Michael Shannon‘s turn as Texan cop Bobby Andes in Nocturnal Animals is gritty, gutsy and gripping. It caught the attention of the Academy, which honored Shannon with what some consider a surprise Best Supporting Actor nomination at this year’s Oscars. But for fans of the dynamic actor, it’s his compelling and provocative performance in the 2016 Sundance drama Frank & Lola that deserves recognition.
Frank & Lola is the debut feature of journalist-turned-filmmaker Matthew Ross. It’s a raw and intimate exploration of one couple’s tumultuous relationship, and investigates the ways in which past choices surface and resurface to dictate current and future outcomes.
Alluded to by the title, the psychosexual neo-noir takes as its subject the relationship between Frank (Shannon) and Lola (Imogen Poots). Frank is a top-notch chef and Lola is a much younger fashion design student. The film opens and immediately seduces the viewer by bringing us into bed with the pair. What takes most projects at least 20-30 minutes to do, Frank & Lola achieves with its first few frames. It doesn’t feel forced, either — our presence during their private moment somehow feels natural.
As the scenes bleed into one another and we travel between Paris and Las Vegas, layers of the titular characters are pulled back. Initially, Frank is presented as brooding, reserved and somewhat somber while Lola is portrayed as seemingly untethered and carefree. But when Frank catches Lola flirting with a bar patron (Justin Long), their masks begin to dissolve and their true selves emerge.
Frank becomes the embodiment of male domination, expressing jealousy, mistrust, possessiveness and a need for total control. In time, Lola proves to be a troubled individual with dark, tormenting and painful secrets that plague her. When her history is laid bare, Frank spirals into a state of paranoia and the pair becomes entangled in a web of love, revenge, violence and deceit.
The alluring performances delivered by Shannon and Poots are the pillars of Frank & Lola. Shannon loses himself in his role, shedding all traces of the men we’ve seen him portray so brilliantly in films such as Revolutionary Road (2008), for which he earned his first Oscar nomination, Take Shelter (2011), Mud (2012), and Midnight Special (2016). He conveys an intensity that burns through his eyes and channels a furious aggression that threatens to unleash at any moment.
But in the next scene, he manages to conceal that emotion behind a carefully constructed veneer. His ability to seamlessly transition between extremes makes him a force of nature. Shannon seems to gravitate towards daring roles that other actors fear, and that kind of bravery is enticing.
For her part, Poots strikes a balance between the meek, mild victim and the sexually adventurous, acutely aware provocateur. She puts her sexual prowess on full display and then moments later, retreats and demonstrates an emotional fragility not easily evoked. Poots’ rise positions her on the same trajectory as indie darling Greta Gerwig, with roles in Jane Eyre (2011), A Late Quartet (2012) and Knight of Cups (2015), and Lola is proof that casting agents should be actively pursuing her.
Not only is Frank & Lola directed by Ross, but he also wrote it. The nonlinear timeline is tricky to make sense of at the beginning, which may irritate some viewers, but Ross earns back whatever points he may have lost by establishing a tender, melancholic tone that is wholly absorbing. He understands the vulnerability of human emotion and the mercurial nature of impassioned relationships, and illustrates a knowledge of capturing an audience’s attention. The film is an impressive debut and cements Ross as a budding talent to follow.
The cinematography by Eric Koretz and the music by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans (both of Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Autopsy of Jane Doe fame) assist in bringing the perturbing tale to life. Koretz avoids Las Vegas’ showy side in favor of featuring the warm and inviting elements that make it unique. From the neon lights of late night clubs to its class and sophistication, Paris’ character shines. Bensi and Jurriaans build on the story’s sense of impending doom with a dramatic soundscape that immerses and unsettles audiences.
Intoxicating and tantalizing, Frank & Lola boldly places a delicate relationship on the verge of destruction under the microscope. It exposes human flaws and weaknesses, but incites empathy and cultivates a connection between viewer and character. Frank and Lola’s story shows that the undoing of one knot can be enough to eviscerate a bond. It’s a sexy, striking film with sharp performances by its skilled lead actors, and begs the question: how well do we really know those closest to us?
If you’ve seen Frank & Lola and wish to rate/review it, click here. ~Matthew Pariselli