Film Review: Frank the Bastard

The murk is thick in Brad Coley's mystery, which is well-acted but a task to keep up with.
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Clair Defina (Rachel Miner) is a woman on a mission, in spite of herself. Just divorced and a victim of severe panic attacks, she journeys to her childhood home in a remote part of Maine after the death of her father, accompanied by her girlfriend Isolda (Shamika Cotton), who wants to shake her out of her mopey malaise.

Clair's haunted, suppressed memories of her hippie commune upbringing come tumbling forward, as she encounters various townspeople, largely suspicious and unfriendly, most of whom seem greedily bent on snatching a piece of her inherited pie. A notorious fire killed both her mom and the mother of a now seriously damaged childhood friend, Frank (Andy Comeau), and that tragedy's obvious cover-up is the major m.o. of a local rich and very tough family, headed by a real meanie named Cyrus Gast (William Sadler).

Writer-director Brad Coley's self-described "Northern Gothic" works better as a highly atmospheric study of character than as a mystery thriller. Initially intriguing and quirkily original, Frank the Bastard gets rather bogged down in a surfeit of plot and endlessly talky scenes which sometimes confuse more than elucidate the complex exposition. Your interest starts to wander as you are given just too much information from a multitude of various backstories; it's a helluva lot of work to follow.

Coley's artfully assembled cast, however, intermittently relieves things. Miner makes a nicely unconventional, intensely meek heroine, Comeau has an innocent charm, and Cotton shows spunky verve as Isolda, although her charming side plot of a May-December romance with a local played by Chris Sarandon is made silly by Coley's naming him Tristan.   

The real cast standouts are two older actresses who bring a touch of twisted inspiration to the proceedings: The late Ellen Albertini Dow is an adorably querulous biddy and, as her incessantly combative daughter, Wendy Vanden Heuvel steals the film clean away. Her Alice is in the great movie tradition of forbiddingly sinister dragon ladies like Judith Anderson's Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, Sonia Dresdel in The Fallen Idol, Rosalie Crutchley in The Haunting and, of course, Cloris Leachman in Young Frankenstein. Indeed, at times Vanden Heuvel’s poker-faced grimness approaches Leachman for pure deadpan, scary hilarity.

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