“A murky and convoluted mystery about a woman’s past.”
A long-ago hippie commune, a feared and influential local family, and a mysterious fire are the ingredients of Frank the Bastard, a self-described “Northern Gothic” drama-thriller written and directed by Brad Coley. In sluggishly-told TV-quality style, the film chronicles a fragile woman’s journey into her sad and terrifying childhood history.
Clair Defina (Rachel Miner) is a 33-year-old New York-based writer who suffers panic attacks from her recent divorce and father’s death. With the urging of her spunky and free-spirited best friend Isolda (Shamika Cotton) who tugs along with her, Clair takes a road trip and visits the Maine commune from where her father whisked her away. She was raised there until a suspicious fire took her mother when was six.
The people of the coastal Maine town have varied reactions to the pair’s visit. While Isolda has some sort of May-December flirtation with a worn-out sailor named Tristan (Chris Sarandon), Clair is reluctantly received and invited into her farmhouse by her grumpy and sour cousin Alice (Wendy Vanden Heuvel) who, with her elderly mother Dora (the late Ellen Albertini Dow), are the only people remaining in the commune. With the farm facing bank foreclosure, Alice and Dora plan to skip town in the coming days.
Soon, Clair and Isolda run into Cyrus Gast (William Sadler), a junkyard crime boss who plans to build a gas pipeline in the area. Other than sharing a shady past with Clair’s parents, he has a number of illegitimate children all over town. One of which is Frank (Andy Comeau), a reserved and schizophrenic drifter who was Clair’s childhood friend. With his psychic abilities, he reconnects with her and help her solve the fire cover-up that fated night a long time ago.
Frank the Bastard is initially interesting but the intrigue soon dissolves into its slow-paced soap operatic narrative. Little by little, information are revealed from several flashbacks, backstories and endlessly talky scenes. For almost two hours, there is a gentle but constant deluge of information, drowning audiences with overstuffed mysteries and murky subtexts. As a result, such tidbits add more confusion to the complex premise rather than elucidating us. With so much to follow and work on, the film ends with no dramatic tension or tight climax.
Like soap operas, the film involves a number of characters but its relatively short screen time deprives them of deeper development and emotional attachment to viewers. Thinly-sketched, the characters are not able to grow beyond the confines of its mystery-motivated plot. Titular figure Frank suffers the most in this case. Appearing only a few times in the entire movie, Frank is mostly meek and mute. Instead of stepping up and justifying its prominence in the title, Frank is swept to the sidelines.
The film somehow assembles a decent cast. Miner does well as the intensely vulnerable and modest Clair. Despite having not much dialogues and appearance, Comeau captivates as Frank with his taciturn ways and innocent charm. Cotton complements Miner and her moments with Sarandon are tender and sweet. Vanden Heuvel is the standout in the movie. She has a strong presence as Alice and with her deadpan harshness and occasional subtlety, she is appealing and praiseworthy.
Contrary to its title, Frank the Bastard is a plot-driven thriller, thick with ambiguities but slow in their unravelling. Characters are muddy and poorly developed. Despite its social and ecological undercurrents, it fails to leave strong impressions.