It’s amazing what director Matthew Ross achieves with this, his feature-film debut. A director of short films for nearly twenty years, Ross has finally transitioned to feature lengths with his psychosexual thriller Frank & Lola. His tale of two tortured lovers evokes comparisons to the world of 1940s film noir, with its hazy Las Vegas landscape glittering only to hide the grime underneath. Placed in the hands of two phenomenal lead actors – Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots – Ross’ tale of love and betrayal has moments of blistering honesty, even if the whole affair is somewhat underdone.

Frank (Shannon) is a successful Las Vegas chef; Lola (Poots) is a recent college graduate hoping to break into the fashion world. The two embark on a relationship together, but a secret from Lola’s past puts Frank on a course for revenge and catharsis.

This being Ross’ debut feature, it’s amazing how confident the entire affair is. Filmed on location in Las Vegas and Paris, his characters are cool and worldly, making their way in life with a glamour most people only dream about. But that glitzy world of popularity is a hoax for both Frank and Lola’s inability to just be happy with the way things are. Ross drops the audience in medias res, with Frank and Lola’s relationship already having begun. We’re given glimpses into their personalities: Frank hints at abuse in his past; Lola has a contentious relationship with her mother (played by Rosanna Arquette in full-cougar mode). The characters talk as if large amounts of time have passed and, because of these gaps, it’s often hard to grasp both time and character motivation with so much left unsaid. Thankfully the actors overcome these impediments through looks and reactions that hint at how deep their love goes.

Despite the age difference between the stars, both Shannon and Poots avail themselves of Ross’ smoky, noir-ish dialogue. Shannon’s character expresses much by saying little, and you can’t get a better reactor than Shannon. He hides his feelings just enough to pass through awkward social situations, yet still giving off a hint of what is brewing inside him. Frank’s lack of trust for his girlfriend hints at a wealth of inner turmoil, though the film wants to fall back on a return to old-school masculinity. It’s one of the few elements of the film that turns the audience off to this relationship; Frank wants to believe he has some semblance of control, telling Lola they’re “rotten” for each other, yet he doesn’t seem to acknowledge his own role in the matter.

Poots’ character has the more intriguing backstory, if only because she isn’t the primary narrative focus despite the title’s co-billing. Part of this is Poots’ command of a character who’s seen so much in her life – most of it bad – yet keeps everything to herself. When she finally has to admit to cheating on Frank, Poots’ amazingly restrained breakdown to avoid hysterics is a watershed event. Though this isn’t her story, the young actress tries her hardest to turn Lola into a character of her own as opposed to a crusade for Frank’s rage.

The script seems at odds with what story it wants to tell exactly. Is this the story of a relationship turned sour due to mistrust? Or are we dealing with one man’s inability to control his own inner machismo? Frank’s mission to avenge Lola from the man who raped her (a coldly disaffected Michael Nyqvist) gives the character motivation at the expense of what starts out as a strong examination of the breakdown in trust people have in relationships. It’s wonderful watching Shannon and Poots go in circles, discussing how her past affects his future and other gender disparities that often crop up at a certain point in a romance. Separating the two and giving Frank this ability to both avenge and get revenge on the woman who wronged him turns the audience against Frank entirely.

For a first feature Frank & Lola’s flaws aren’t too detrimental. It will be great to see where Ross’ career goes from here. On its own merits, Frank & Lola starts out as a stage-esque look at chinks in the armor of a relationship before devolving into a muddled descent into psycho-sexual mind games that never fully gels. Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots are wonderful, however, and they do a lot to help sell the film.

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