A psychological thriller about a woman confronting her dark past is riddled with superficial characterizations and inconsistencies.
Frank the Bastard
There’s a woman on a mission in Frank the Bastard. She’s on a quest carrying her back to her roots, back to a community she’s long forgotten about, and back to a childhood event she’s suppressed for years. Surprising discoveries and greedy conspirators line the path, but a genuine sense of intrigue is unfortunately absent.
The film sports the kind of run-of-the-mill mystery plot that could potentially be elevated by other factors. With an emphasis on atmosphere and a central McGuffin that is cleverly interwoven with the characters’ emotional development, one could easily get distracted from the dull narrative. However, the problem with Frank the Bastard is that its story just isn’t a particularly interesting one, despite its attempts to throw in some (stale) twists. Save for a small handful of expressive sequences, Frank the Bastard amounts to a film simply going through the motions.
Our protagonist is 33-year old Clair Defina (Rachel Miner). Recently divorced and suffering from a series of debilitating panic attacks, best friend Isolda (Shamika Cotton) coerces Clair to make the drive out of the city to an isolated region of Maine where she spent her early years. Clair hasn’t visited the little fishing town—a former hippie commune—since her mother’s tragic death in a mysterious house fire, and the bulk of her memories from that time remain frustratingly blocked. Upon arrival, the two women encounter a number of locals (both friendly and suspicious) and the mention of Clair’s family spurs a great deal of reminiscing. But something else is going on, as talk swirls around an enigmatic and crookedly composed childhood friend named Frank (Andy Comeau), and a wealthy nearby family looks to cover up the truth that Clair is desperately looking for.
The film’s first act provides plenty to chew on, dishing out soft-spoken hints about Frank as a complicated and possibly dangerous man. Every time someone speaks his name, there’s an aura of dread lingering over the sound of it. But then he shows up, suddenly and without warning, and as soon as he comes on the scene the intrigue invested in the character flatlines. Frank becomes just another supporting player, rather than the ticking time bomb of revelatory information and concealed aggression that he was seemingly positioned to be from the beginning. The film simply fails to have Frank live up to the image it creates of him, making all the hearsay about him ring hollow.
A similar dynamic of empty buildup and halfhearted follow-through falls across basic storytelling lines, comprising the bulk of Frank the Bastard’s problems. The surreal nature of Clair’s panic attacks and the notion of returning to a traumatic and isolated place suggests a couple different things. It gives the vibe of something deeply sinister and removed from society’s norms. The cinematography’s deceptively handsome twilight glow and shadowy high contrast only furthers the notion of wickedness being right around the corner. The image of a mixed up woman in a sleepy hamlet, either supernaturally affected or haunted by the demons of misdeeds, comes to mind (Think Martha Marcy May Marlene crossed with The Wicker Man or one of Stephen King’s many visions of small-town Maine), but the reality is not nearly as titillating. The teases of a horror/thriller narrative are present, but they clash violently with an underwhelming land-grab plot that skews closer to a generic crime drama. It also doesn’t help that the awkward tone, one that wobbles between leisurely and purposeful, undercuts the attempts at establishing a dark mystery element.
The focus on the out of place real estate plotline doesn’t have to be a problem in and of itself. Rather, it is the unimaginative modes of conveying information pertaining to that storyline that makes it even more tedious than it already is. The filmmakers’ idea of delivering plot points is unequivocally narrow, confined to clunky conversations in which characters discuss loads of newly revealed clues in a way that obviously stands in place of the screenwriter addressing the audience directly. These exposition dumps only increase in prevalence as the story begins to leave some of its character moments behind in favor of feverish amateur detective work.
The characters themselves are barely more interesting than the knowledge they express, usually falling into one of three camps: a devious “bad guy” type, a curious truth-seeker, or someone with answers. There’s very little gray area between these groups of characters, and the lack of nuance really hurts the small character studies going on in between the more procedural material.
The finale does a good job of recentering the focus on what matters most, organizing a confrontation that actually brings the plot strands together in a decently satisfying way, but it still misses the poignant note that the entire film is groping for. It’s a good effort, but it doesn’t make up for the film’s glaring flaws.
Frank the Bastard shows the promise of a writer-director with a good eye for visuals, but a reluctance to allow them to stand on their own. Brad Coley’s film never rings as “bad,” but it is at odds with itself in almost every way, and in the process of this struggle with itself, it loses sight of its emotional potential.