Emotional baggage threatens to destroy future happiness in Frank & Lola, Matthew M. Ross' confident directorial debut and the latest in a recent trend of seductive, stylish neo-noirs. Ross was lucky enough to have snagged one helluva duo to play the eponymous romantic duo, the steely-eyed Michael Shannon and the consistently-brilliant Imogen Poots. Together they are a force to be reckoned right from the outset, so much that their intensity elevates the film as it transforms into a less coherent psycho-sexual thriller.
Ross' lurid, nocturnal vision of Las Vegas is where we find Shannon as high-class chef Frank, who is, much to our surprise, in bed with the young and gorgeous Lola. It's shocking because this isn't the Michael Shannon we're accustomed to. Isn't he always on the verge of killing somebody or at least threatening to kill somebody? This is, at least for a time, a softer side of Shannon but he sells it well, made easier by Poots' soft gaze. Frank meets Lola at his restaurant's bar, winning her over not with a drink but with a meal, a simple one that she loves.
What should be charming meet-cute is laced with dread, however. There's something broken and edgy about the both of them, like they're walking shards of glass ready to cut at a moment's notice. Ross doles out the reasons why through the casual ease of conversation, such as Frank's terse "I never said I was a gentleman' response to a relatively benign comment by Lola. But she, too, shows signs of wear. She's a little too trusting, a little too eager. A fresh-faced girl just out of design school, there's no real reason for her to be with a guy like Frank, even though he's walking on egg shells not to screw things up. His chivalry makes up for it.
And then we start to see it. It happens suddenly, which is why it has such impact. Frank's devotion begins to turn to obsession when Lola is hired by a slick, flirty entrepreneur (Justin Long) to do some design work. Frank's suspicious, which is normal, but he just won't let it go, which isn't normal. His instability seems to set something off in Lola, too. We come to learn of another man from her sexual past (Michael Nyqvist), who also happens to be much older, and Frank just can't handle it, especially after an act of betrayal sends him reeling.
It's fair to say that Ross' screenplay is full of twists, turns, and utterly illogical contrivances. Frank goes off on a half-cocked revenge mission in Paris, spurred on by a job offer he received from a guy he hates. But there's little rhyme or reason to his jealous rage short of simple paranoia and insecurity. So much more is suggested but never seen, and while a little haze surrounding Frank's past is good it also becomes a stumbling block.
As expected Shannon is great as Frank, with some of the best scenes when he's commenting on the state of the culinary industry. Perhaps fed up with the Food Networkitization of dining, he growls "Nobody knows how to eat anymore" to a potential client. He's not wrong, but the always scary Shannon makes you wonder if Frank will serve them something vile as payback. His dissent into stalker territory is a smooth transition, not surprising given the number of times Shannon has played paranoid. He and Poots share scenes that are simultaneously passionate and disturbing, a perfect description for Frank and Lola's relationship.
Ross shows his talent by taking Frank & Lola places we don't expect it to go. They may not always make sense, but there's daring in the attempt and that is always worth something. And Ross does it in service of the story, which wants us to ask what we truly know about the person we love and if we could handle it if we knew everything.
Rating: 3 out of 5