Robot And Frank – Review

film reviews | movies | features | BRWC Robot And Frank - Review

Robots have always made for fascinating and iconic movie characters. Like aliens, robots’ innate status as something ultimately ‘other’ than ourselves, yet often displaying recognisably human emotions through the lens of robotic metaphors or principles, make them endlessly compelling to watch. Whether it’s the psychotic machismo of the Terminator, the low-status infatuation of Wall-E, the schoolboy precociousness of R2-D2 or the banjo-playing racism of the Bicentennial Man (I haven’t seen Bicentennial Man. I may have been misinformed), robots have been relentlessly reliable at throwing the mirror up to mankind, forcing us to recognise our faults and strengths either through their own imitation of humanity, or, more often, their programmed lack of it. They also make a pretty rad unstoppable army too.

The robot in Robot and Frank is similarly mesmerising. He (it?) is immediately a paradox. He has no face apart from a creepily impassive black screen – making his head look more like a white motorcycle helmet – but his voice is silky and welcoming, played with a dreamy earnestness by Peter Sarsgaard. He looks clumsy and weighty but moves with an almost silent grace, robot suit piloted from within by dancer Rachael Ma. He is tasked with maintaining the health of elderly rogue, Frank (Frank Langella) but has no moral compass, which allows his programming to be manipulated in a certain extra-legal capacity.

You see, Frank’s a retired cat burglar and slowly but surely succumbing to dementia, his memory fraying away around him. The present is slowly passing him by, old being usurped by youth – given a face in form of Frank’s antagonist, Jake (Jeremy Strong) a smarmy little hipster who regards old age as quirky. Frank’s son (James Marsden) buys him a robot to regiment his life and improve his health. Frank doesn’t take too kindly to such interference setting the stage for an odd-couple personality clash. Needless to say they grow to depend upon each other and a genuine, moving friendship blossoms.

This nurse-patient arc is well-well-worn, but the predictability is offset by the robot’s otherness. Rather than change – the robot can’t, he’s not programmed to – the friendship develops via Frank’s subtle manipulation of the robot’s logic and programming in order to coax it (him?) into carrying out a few last robberies. Cleverly, the robot – programmed to expect resistance – manages a little manipulation of his own. It’s a tiny little tale of an inhuman – but recognisably human – friendship. It’s also my favourite film of 2013 thus far.

What’s even more remarkable is that this is the debut feature for not only writer Christopher D. Ford but also for director Jake Schreier. The structure and thematic motifs are so intricately constructed, the pacing so deliberate and the tone so gracefully handled that the futures of both men are very exciting to anticipate. Speaking of the future, that’s another of the film’s subtle successes. Set in the purposely vague “near future”, the technological advances are slight but ring completely true; apart from the robot, the most obviously futuristic technology is – of course – phones.

The film confidently sidesteps the potential pitfalls of its rather sombre subject matter as well. Frank’s encroaching dementia could have made for a plethora of maudlin scenes, but Frank’s roguish disregard for such things is echoed in the film-makers’ tact. We only notice a few excusable slips in memory and awareness at first, but they very gradually build – sewn into Frank’s routine – that we almost disregard them as well until a third act plot development occurs, which in less capable hands could have been hokey, but in the hands of Ford and Schreier manages to be quietly devastating.

A quick word about the acting. Each and every member of the cast give their best – perhaps Liv Tyler is a shade too ethereal as Frank daughter, but it suits her character well enough – but Frank Langella’s downright impeccable; at once bullishly stubborn, delicate, sly and charming. He manages to convey not only years of experience, but also the very real fear of losing such years with deftness. Only when Frank can see himself in the robot’s mimicry of his life does his facade crack and it’s all so well-handled! Gah!

I’ll stop gushing now. All this unfettered praise is becoming sickening, but Robot and Frank really is a perfect little character piece. Like the robot himself, it’s warm, gracefully constructed and – recognisably – human. See it please.

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  • Brianna 3rd April 2013

    I’ve been a bit apprehensive about watching this movie. The trailer seemed a tad muddled to me, so I managed to create a copious amount of flimsy excuses not to check out the film for some months now. Thanks to your review, though, I’m inclined to finally make the effort to rent it. Much obliged.


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