Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots in Frank & Lola (Paladin)

Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots in Frank & Lola (Paladin)

This hybrid of a film starts off with an awkward scene between the older Frank (Michael Shannon) and the younger, gorgeous Lola (Imogen Poots). They are about to make love when the former hesitates, given that they just met that night. For Lola, it seemingly spoils the mood, or at least it does until she requests that Frank pin her arms down. He complies, the first sign that their ensuing relationship will be far from vanilla (in more ways than one) and that there’s more to Frank’s new lover than initially meets the eye.

Indeed, as time progresses, it’s clear that Frank and Lola are damaged people who don’t necessarily bring out each other’s best. Perhaps it’s the age difference or the fact they’ve known each other for only a short time. But whatever the reason, Frank, despite becoming a successful chef in his own right, cannot fully trust her. He engages in some uncomfortably stalkerish behavior, at one point spying on Lola as she’s chatting at a bar with an obnoxious venture capitalist–type (Justin Long), who claims he can help with her fashion designer aspirations.

For her part, Lola proves less than entirely trustworthy. She admits to cheating on Frank, which causes him to go pick a fight with a stranger. She bails him out of jail, and what emerges is less a détente than a distraction from their real issues: Lola reveals that years ago, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, a wealthy man named Alan (Michael Nyqvist), who now lives in Paris. Their quiet conversation proves to be the calm before the storm, as not long afterward, Frank is offered a chance to cook for a wealthy restaurateur, and the audition happens to be in Paris.

From here on out, the film is less a case study of a toxic relationship than a slow-burning thriller with noirish twists and turns. Although Frank successfully tracks down Alan, ostensibly to murder him, what he ends up with are more questions about Lola and her past. In addition, the suave Alan convinces Frank to briefly immerse himself in the city’s seedy underbelly with him, and the result has Frank questioning whether there is something rotten in what he and Lola share. Upon returning home, he confronts her with what he has done and learned, and she responds with more revelations that shift the film’s equilibrium once more.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to root for the titular couple to succeed, based on how much secrecy and distrust exists between them. Yet it’s relatively easy to cheer against Alan, who has been engaging in behaviors that go against his filial relationship. As such, Alan is “dishonorable,” while Frank, who returns to Paris to avenge his lover’s insulted honor once and for all, is “honorable.” Frank is not without his own flaws, but with his working-class background, he is more the everyman, representing monogamy and other traditional values. This even applies to his cooking: for his audition, he prepares a simple roasted chicken dish, which is received quizzically by the judges, who were expecting something flashier.

At only 88 minutes, this is a fine example of economic storytelling. Occasionally, writer-director Matthew Ross will cut back and forth between two different scenes—one in the present, and one at a different point in time—thereby reducing them to the most vital information. Michael Shannon, meanwhile, once again proves to be a master of speaking volumes through body language and facial expressions.

We never find out the root of Frank’s insecurities, though, and there are moments that rely a little too much on coincidence. But these are well compensated by fine performances and the moody score provided by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, which helps carry the viewer along to the satisfying final showdown between Frank and Alan. That’s where the former serves up revenge like his chicken—old-fashioned and unpretentious.

Written and Directed by Matthew Ross
Released by Paladin
USA. 88 min. Not rated
With Michael Shannon, Imogen Poots, Justin Long, Rosanna Arquette, and Michael Nyqvist