It’s been a long year, friends. We are near its conclusion and we all hope you’re staying sane, safe and well out there. To even the most casual Midwest Film Journal reader, it will be no surprise that we love puns around here almost as much as we love thoughtful, entertaining criticism and monthlong series that can highlight some of our favorite creators and creations. We thank you for another great year with us here at MFJ. So in that spirit that we hope makes you smile, our December ode to one of our favorite sibling duos: Deck the Gyllenhaals.
Not to be outdone by her brother, Maggie Gyllenhaal has also starred in a quirkily tough-to-quantify film in which she interacts with a sometimes-menacing, strangely inspiring figure that wears a costume and goes by the name of Frank. In lieu of a stupid bunny suit, this disguise is a giant papier-mâché head under which co-star Michael Fassbender spends 88% of the movie. And instead of using an ominous rabbit to symbolize cosmic chaos, Frank burrows into the artistic conflict between commodifying pain into a persona and feeling like your “all-the-way-out-there” ramblings might actually connect with people.
Frank mostly focuses on Fassbender’s titular oddball, who fronts a band called the Soronprfbs (pronounce it however it seems sensible) and never, ever takes off the mask. Shower? Bag it. Sustenance? Liquids in a straw. Dental maintenance? Now you’re just asking too many questions. But Frank does have a legally certified certificate to leave it on at customs check-ins. The audience surrogate is Domhnall Gleeson’s Jon, a wannabe musician who joins the Soronprfbs on a whim after their keyboard player tries drowning himself in the sea. Fruitless in his solo endeavors, Jon immediately takes to Frank’s encouraging spirit with the Soronprfbs — Frank vocalizes his expressions behind the mask such as “big, non-threatening grin!” — but also elbows himself in as band manager to generate some novelty exposure. (The Soronprfbs’ music is like a swirl of King Crimson and the most out-there material the Flaming Lips have, with a sort of pained Glenn Danzig tenor from Fassbender and occasional yowls and howls.)
Jon’s pursuits quickly draw the ire of Gyllenhaal’s Clara, a multi-instrumentalist as protective of her band’s frontman as she is her theremin. Clara knows that Frank’s music, and the esoteric, artistically inaccessible purity he finds in it, are all he has. In Jon, she sees just another wave of crisis yet to crest like so many before. Frank thinks he’d love the masses to hear his message, but the touring, recording … they’re ultimately just ruses so that those he needs to make music happen remain on the hook, no matter how small their audience. Even after she’s shocked by a short-circuiting electrical outlet, Clara demands the Soronprfbs continue playing and derides them when they stop. If that didn’t demonstrate the depth of her concern for Frank’s sanity, Clara also brandishes a switchblade against those who would intervene. There’s also a playful prankster’s spirit here, as Clara surreptitiously samples Jon’s shrieking during a shaving incident for a Soronprfbs song, and even angry hate-sex in which she delivers chef’s-kiss dominance.
Gyllenhaal is said to have initially turned down the role because she didn’t comprehend the film’s meaning. But something about Clara stuck with her and she reversed course. It’s both one of her most aggressive and dynamic roles. Clara is willing to tear a hole through hangers-on and opportunists but she’s not simply a cartoonish ice queen. Gyllenhaal illustrates the conflict burbling beneath Clara’s surface even when she’s incidentally standing off to the side of a scene. Take a moment where Frank (busting out unexpectedly perfect German) comforts confused teutonic tourists to a point where he encourages them to freely dance with him. Gyllenhaal’s expression suggests Clara’s gnawing concern that Frank will dispense happiness to everyone but himself. And eventually Clara will come to realize that she, too, is enabling Frank’s inability to confront the world in ways he could and should. It’s not out of malice or personal gain, just uncertainty and insecurity at the root of any overprotective behavior. Clara worries about any obstacle that could impede Frank’s ability to truly express himself, perhaps implicitly knowing but not accepting that all the artifice Frank has constructed around him — including his trust of her — is built to do just that.
It’s inevitable that Frank builds to a moment where Fassbender doffs the head. But it’s Gyllenhaal who sells its emotional apex and her face on which director Lenny Abrahamson focuses most during the scene. (By now, Jon is largely an afterthought. It’s part of the movie’s message, that fans who think they know better quite often do not. Similarly, Frank is wise enough to understand creativity flows around mental illness, not from it.) Gazing upon Frank’s face, Clara’s voice breaks during a song she’s singing. But her eye contact never does. Here, Gyllenhaal shows us what it’s like to fully, truly and for the first time know someone for whom you’ve cared for so long and understand how you held them back even when you thought it was in their best interest. You can’t watch Frank and forget Fassbender’s giant papier-mâché head. Neither will you forget how Maggie Gyllenhaal nearly steals the whole thing from that.