film film noir

FRANK & LOLA Review: Psychological Noir Done (Mostly) Right

Monday, December 12, 2016 Rob Samuelson

Frank (Michael Shannon, who is having a prolific and excellent 2016) is a man who is unable to let the past be the past. He is the type of guy who will go to great and horrible lengths to create a false sense of justice so he can feel better about things he was not responsible for -- and they don’t help the people he is trying to avenge, either. That tragic psychological flaw is the point of Frank & Lola, a neo-noir from first-time feature writer-director Matthew Ross.

Photo credit: Frank & Lola - a film by Matthew Ross/Facebook

Frank’s a Las Vegas chef with a stellar resume, especially for a guy who works in a place that appears to be a high-rent diner (maybe that’s a trendy new thing among the fine dining set, but I don’t know that world) and catering private parties for the city’s richest residents. His decades-younger girlfriend, Lola (Imogen Poots, herself having a strong year after co-starring in the neo-Nazi siege picture, Green Room), reminds him of the relationships he screwed up, his failure to reach the highest peaks of his profession (despite what seems to be ample opportunity to do so), and more generally of the ugliest subsections of humanity.

Very little of this is Lola’s fault, mind you, particularly that last point. She was the victim of a crime and she is broken because of it. Crucially, Poots makes Lola a striver. She wants to better herself and her situation and she’s capable of doing just that -- if she can be left to heal rather than diving back into her painful memories. Her moment of vulnerability, when she tells Frank about this part of her own past (after first hurting him because of her own busted psyche), sets the plot in motion. Partly because it’s a brainy neo-noir, Frank & Lola doesn’t shy away from the grimy parts of human nature. Frank’s inability to create a good present because a crummy past bothers him too much is his Achilles heel, as it is for most noir protagonists -- and for most people in the real world, too.

The movie offers its male lead a way out of this spiral, and it’s a good lesson for anyone watching, as well. We see Frank, a man capable of violence and vague threats -- he wants Lola’s insufferable but harmless (and genuinely helpful) boss, played by Justin Long, to know that he owns a “very sharp set of knives,” a phrase spoken gently but frighteningly in that Michael Shannon way -- turn into something else when he’s cooking. When he keeps things simple, like when he sharpens his knives (to be used for cooking) or shaves intricate slices of a rare truffle for a special meal, his intensity works in his favor. That simplicity (he’s like a grumpy zen master when he’s in this mode) allows him to connect to Lola, to offer her something worth holding onto, at least for a little while. That is, before he squanders it by fixating on an unjust past that wasn’t his, a past that he only makes worse by bringing it to the forefront with his misplaced sense of justice (he’s the type of person that needs to “save” those he cares about) and ruining a present that is relatively pleasant. It’s a particularly frustrating (and relatable) human neurosis Frank suffers from.

Ross and cinematographer Eric Koretz shoot this couple’s struggle in a manner that borders on workmanlike for much of the movie’s runtime -- until the time comes to really make a point. They capture color in a way that reminds one of the films of Steven Soderbergh. The scenes shot in Vegas are golden, to create a fake sense of optimism that these two people can find a way to be happy in their situation -- it’s a gilded gold, much like everything in that glitzy, false town. When Frank travels to Paris to confront Lola’s past and his own hangups, Ross and Koretz switch to saturated reds and blues in a club that doubles as Frank’s ugly, nagging subconscious -- he can’t turn off these urges, and going to Paris without Lola by his side enables him to indulge these unhealthy compulsions.

Despite the strong visual storytelling in key moments, there’s something that holds Frank & Lola back. Ross’s script gets a little twist-heavy, with one or two too many moments where the rug gets yanked out from under the viewer. The first time a twist happens, it comes from a character’s motivation -- Poots does a heartbreaking job of expressing Lola’s motivations -- but the second major revelation happens at a time when the film begins to grind a little. Ross writes himself into a corner and he creates a way out that is not entirely believable, particularly because Frank’s gullible reaction to this new (and quickly refuted) information isn’t Shannon’s best work in the movie. The film’s ending suffers from a similar rug-pulling urge that directly contradicts a dramatically satisfying conversation that happens mere moments earlier.

These flaws are not necessarily deal breakers for a film, much as Frank & Lola’s primary characters’ issues may not be deal breakers for each other. However, your mileage may vary as to how much you are willing to put up with them. Maybe that strengthens Ross’s point, after all.
Director: Matthew Ross
Writer: Matthew Ross
Starring: Michael Shannon, Imogen Poots, Justin Long, Rosanna Arquette, Michael Nyqvist, Suteara Vaughn
Rating: Three-and-a-half-stars out of five
Available in limited release and on demand now

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