Michael Shannon is such an intense actor I don’t know that I could ever see him as a romantic lead. Even when he’s whispering sweet nothings, I’d always feel like there was something sinister happening underneath. So it is with Frank & Lola, the new film starring Shannon and Imogen Poots as the titular characters.
He’s a respected Las Vegas chef and she’s a fashion designer-hopeful just out of school. First-time director Matthew Ross shows us the beginnings of their relationship in fits and starts. He strings together snippets of scenes, flashing both backwards and forward, giving us snapshots of who they are without plunging in too deep.
In one perfectly staged scene, Lola sits at a bar with the handsome, trendy, and rich Keith (Justin Long). Frank enters without begin noticed. Seeing her with another man, he sits back instead of charing right in. He listens. Keith and Lola are flirtatious but she keeps him at arm's length. When he offers her a dream job, she sardonically asks if she’ll have to sleep with him first. He answers in the negative but you get the feeling he wouldn't mind it anyway. When he leaves, Frank calls her and asks if she’s with her mother. She answers truthful and he takes her into his arms.
In just a few minutes, that scene sets up those characters incredibly well. He’s jealous but not overly so. He watches her, questions her, but doesn’t accuse. She’s flirtatious but honest. The film explores that relationship through a series of pretty dark twists and turns.
When she comes home having made a terrible mistake, he forgives her. In turn, she tells the story of her younger days and the abuse she experienced by her mother’s old lover. Through a too few convenient turns of plot, Frank winds up in Paris where he confronts the abuser. But nothing is ever as it seems in this film and Frank must decide who to trust.
Through several twists and turns, the film explores male infatuation and jealousy. At differing times, Frank suspects Lola is lying to him or cheating on him or both. How he processes that information is a fascinating look into how we expect men to react to their women.
Matthew Ross proves he is a director worth following. With his first feature film, he’s shown a very steady hand at directing and an assuredness in his storytelling. The back third of Frank & Lola starts to fall apart but he has such a firm grasp of the story he wants to tell it's very worth watching.
It helps that Michael Shannon is so incredibly good. There is such intensity to his performance, such violence hiding behind those eyes that I kept expecting the film to take a really dark turn. The film likes playing with those expectations, creating scenarios in which you expect Frank to just explode. There are moments of violence in the film, but it's never what you expect.
Imogen Poots likewise is excellent. She’s not quite as well developed as Frank is and we never quite get to know who she is, or even if she’s telling the truth, but Poots fleshes her out as best she can and gives her a real depth of feeling.
There are a few too many plot conveniences for it to be a truly great film, and it doesn’t feel like Ross knew quite where he wanted it to go in the end, but Frank & Lola is a nice piece of filmmaking. I’ll be looking forward to seeing what Matthew Ross does next.
Frank & Lola in Theaters, on Digital HD, and available On Demand December 9, 2016