The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
There’s a difference between what we know and what we think we know. When it comes to budding love, that difference can be the life or death of a relationship. In Frank & Lola, the directorial debut of Matthew Ross, that discrepancy is what drives apart our two titular leads. Part drama, part psychosexual thriller, part revenge fantasy, Michael Shannon’s latest platform balls up the dark mystery of Polanski, the vivid passion of De Palma, and the razor-wire tension of Hitchcock for a savvy and meticulous 90 minutes.
“I’m not playing games,” Frank (Shannon) warns Lola (Imogen Poots) at the start of the film. The two are both naked and mid-coitus, embracing in the sensual glow of Las Vegas down below. “Sometimes games can be fun,” she teases back. It’s a tad on the nose, but appropriate foreshadowing that sets the tone of the entire film. Because really, that’s all Frank will be doing for the next hour and a half — “playing games” — and it’s his ricocheting game of cat and mouse that glues us to our seats.
When we first meet Frank, he’s the head chef in a trendy Vegas French bistro. His calm demeanor and sense of community insist that he’s a pro, the guy you want running your restaurant. After all, he’s been studying the craft since he was 16, and it shows in his ability to blend the unreal in the kitchen — like, say, an omelette starring caviar and creme fraiche. Which is exactly what he makes for his new passion, Lola. “You’re pretty cool, Frank,” she says. Things are good. Great even.
How long does that really last, though? When does the honeymoon end? For Frank and Lola, pretty fast. What begins as a rollercoaster of star-crossed emotions — late nights drinking and dancing, an impromptu “Frankie” tattoo — turns into a paranoid existence when an unsure Frank starts questioning their bond. It’s not that he doesn’t trust her, although that later becomes part of the equation; he’s just so worried that what they have can one day go away or be taken from him. And for good reason.
After years of coming and going through kitchens, there’s been no real through-line to Frank’s life other than uncontrollable change. He’s all too familiar with being sent away, and that feeling carries over to his personal relationships. So, when Lola meets a friendly fashion mogul named Keith (a smarmy Justin Long), Frank thinks she’s being swept off her feet, and his flight-or-fight response is certainly of the latter. Naturally, all of this speculation leads to some unshakable truths that change everything.
That’s when Frank & Lola goes from 60 to 120 and starts weaving in and out of traffic. As Frank presses on, he learns more and more about Lola’s troubled past, specifically her sordid relationship with a wealthy French author (Michael Nyqvist). Fueled by blind rage and tortured passion, Frank loses himself through a treacherous downward spiral and revenge fantasy as the film takes some sharp left and right turns. It’s all extravagant, but Ross sells the sensationalism by keeping you close to Frank.
And that’s not a bad place to be. Shannon sizzles as Frank, teeming with carnal masculinity and a stony wit that recalls the great and late Steve McQueen. The way he bottles up, explodes, and recollects himself is so engaging and addicting — you can’t keep your eyes off of him. When he’s patrolling France in a sharp suit and a deadly gaze, it’s magnetic stuff. Speaking of which, Poots also steals some real estate on the screen, exuding a magnificent presence that supports Frank’s obsession and fears.
Nyqvist is also delightful, boiling with the classy evil of a legendary Bond villain, which checks out considering he’s played bold antagonists in everything from 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol to 2014’s John Wick. Yet he’s also been the hero, as seen in the Swedish adaptations of the Lisbeth Salander series (he played Mikael Blomkvist), something of an ideal yang to his devilish yin that winds up working to this film’s favor. He needs to be questionable; it affords the film a little obscurity.
But Ross has that covered. The young filmmaker bathes the film in a palette of colors, from the rainbow glaze of Las Vegas to the greens and yellows of Paris. His modish and sensual direction gives reason to the more questionable narrative decisions at hand, especially in the devious conclusion that borders on perfunctory. By this point, Frank is less Favreau and more Neeson, leaving the cutlery behind for a handful of skills that come in handy at just the right moment. Still, you’re likely to roll with it.
On the whole, Frank & Lola is an electric modern noir that thrives from indelible characters and a palatable style. As both screenwriter and director, Ross proves he’s a filmmaker with not just something to say, but somewhere to take us. Rest assured, our passports are ready.