Frank & Lola (2016)
Directed by Matthew Ross
Opens December 9
Michael Shannon is the go-to actor for elevating genre material, and in recruiting him to play the ambitious but tormented gourmet chef Frank Riley, writer-director Matthew Ross maximized the likelihood that Frank & Lola would be an audacious feature debut. Shannon is indeed outstanding and dominant, but this elegantly minimalist film has still more to recommend it—notably, the underrated English actress Imogen Poots, who has far less screen time but firmly stamps her dark, quirky impression on the movie. More generally, Frank & Lola—set in Las Vegas and Paris, tinged in grim green and yellow light, and scored with lugubrious cello music—stays true to its sordid neo-noir roots while injecting them with fresh and sophisticated psychological insight and just maybe a dash of hope.
Frank and Lola start out madly in love, but sources of discord become readily apparent. Frank is Queens-born, ascending from the streets to the gastronomic elite without losing his shady side or his capacity to resort to violence: the first time he is pictured clothed, he is blithely wearing a blood-spattered apron. Poots plays Lola as a winsome but damaged vixen whom Frank cannot trust but equally cannot give up. When her compulsive flirtation with her rich, officious boss tweaks his suspicions about her fidelity, she confesses to an abusively twisted sexual relationship with a French boyfriend of her mother’s (an aptly lupine Michael Nyqvist), for whom, Frank later discovers, she still has feelings. Whipsawed by Lola’s vulnerability and promiscuity into a miasma of jealousy, Frank seeks both to rescue her and to eliminate his competition. It goes almost without saying that the situation gets viciously complicated and very ugly.
Among American film actors in their prime, Shannon and Michelle Williams are the ones who most reliably deliver extraordinary value on a scene-by-scene basis. In character roles that leverage one or two eccentricities, he is unparalleled, almost singlehandedly rendering quirky movies weighty (see his indie collaborations with Jeff Nichols) and salvaging others (e.g., the otherwise dubious Nocturnal Animals). Here, as he did less expansively in the recent Complete Unknown, he shows his depth as a more complex romantic lead. Shannon poises Frank’s natural disposition between rage and resignation, and it’s rarely clear which way he’ll break as a critical moment approaches. As a result, the film’s agonizing tension and fundamental despondency are both unrelenting, and Frank is at times as frightening as classically explosive film characters like Joe Pesci’s Tommy in GoodFellas or Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs. The underrated Poots’s performance, following raw but nicely calibrated turns in films such as Filth and Green Room, constitutes a step up to a more fully formed protagonist. Her fragility is paradoxically—and rivetingly—pernicious, and it dovetails ominously with Frank’s twisted protectiveness. The two leads’ chemistry is messy but undeniable.
As for Ross, he cleverly subverts a noir convention in engineering Frank’s evolution from crazy to sane rather than vice-versa, and never reduces Lola to anything so simple as a clichéd femme fatale. In the end, the audience vectors in on the heady insight that the way a man learns to live with his true love’s foibles is to protect her from them; it’s what he has to do if he can’t stop loving her. The burning question, posed in Frank & Lola with lacerating anguish, is whether she will let him have her on those terms, or instead haunt him on her own.