Many actors no doubt chafe at being typecast in a certain kind of role, especially if they’re ambitious enough to want to push themselves outside their comfort zones to achieve new artistic breakthroughs. Still, it can be both difficult for audiences to make that same leap of faith, and/or sometimes an actor just doesn’t quite have what it takes to make that risk pay-off. In that respect, 2016 might be a banner year for Michael Shannon.
Shannon has been steadily working on stage and screen for the past decade now, and he’s become associated with a certain type of character: twitchy, neurotic, menacing. With his craggy face and imposingly tall physique, he cuts a singularly intense profile, so much so that, watching him perform, one can’t help but wonder if he’s capable of any kind of lightness or delicacy.
At least we know he can make fun of himself. In Nocturnal Animals, he used his high-strung qualities for self-parody, turning his fictional construct of a world-weary, amoral sheriff into a scene-stealing hoot. His interpretation of Elvis Presley in Elvis & Nixon offered an even more crystalline example of his facility with comedy. On the more dramatic side of the spectrum, his performance in Complete Unknown as the ex-lover of Rachel Weisz’s identity-shifting main character suggested he might have the chops to be a romantic lead.
That promise, unfortunately, isn’t fulfilled in his turn in Frank & Lola. In the early stages of writer/director Matthew Ross’s debut feature, Shannon plays Frank—a Las Vegas chef who becomes obsessed with revenge after he discovers a sordid aspect of his girlfriend Lola’s (Imogen Poots) past—in such a tense, closed-off manner that it’s hard to see what attracts Lola to him in the first place. Naturally, Shannon is more convincing the deeper he burrows into his obsession, especially once he begins to obsessively track down the Swedish writer, Alan Larsson (Michael Nyqvist), who Lola claims raped her in Paris the summer before she met him. We’ve seen him play these notes before, and we know he can play them well. Otherwise, for once Shannon’s coiled angst plays as more monotonous than colorful, all wrong for a part that seems to demand a wider emotional range than he’s willing to offer.
Perhaps this misjudged starring turn isn’t entirely Shannon’s fault, though. None of the characters in Ross’s screenplay are characterized with much depth, really. As far as Frank and Lola go, Ross barely seems interested in dramatizing their meet-cute, obscuring the circumstances of their initial meeting in the opening minutes by unnecessarily scrambling the chronology (starting with them in bed at first before doubling back to their initial meeting one Halloween night). If anything, Lola is made even more of a mystery than Frank is: For all of Poots’ efforts to breathe distinctive life into the character, she’s basically just a pretty enigma over whom possessive men will wrestle.
Frank & Lola, dismayingly, turns out to be less about their relationship than about machismo: We mostly see events through the perspective of Frank, a man who believes himself to be his girlfriend’s protector, and who dives into a world in which women are either clingy, like Lola, or near-predatory, like Alan’s wife, Claire (played by Emmanuelle Devos, who really deserves better than this). By the time Ross builds to a final shot that is utterly predictable in its ambiguity, it’s hard to care either way about whether these two archetypal blanks will eventually reconcile the disturbing truths they have discovered about each other in the process.
Director: Matthew Ross
Writer: Matthew Ross
Starring: Michael Shannon, Imogen Poots, Justin Long, Rosanna Arquette, Michael Nyqvist, Emmanuelle Devos
Release Date: December 9, 2016
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and The Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.