Sundance 2012: ‘Robot and Frank’ finds machinery can hold a mirror up to our lost connections
Robot and Frank
Directed by Jack Schreier
Screenplay by Christopher D. Ford
Director Jake Schreier’s Robot and Frank is a tale set sometime in the near future when robots will be at our beck and call for menial tasks or even to watch over the elderly as they become no longer fit to be on their own. Frank Langella (seasoned thespian and recently seen in The Box and Starting Out in the Evening) plays a man unable to let go of his glory years as a suave cat burglar. In and out of prison for most of his life, he was an absent father focused on short term gains from jewelry heists. Now his children (James Marsden, Liv Tyler) are grown and have become independent people with legitimate careers that carry them away from their estranged father. Deteriorating from old age, Frank’s isolating situation threatens to depress him into an early grave. The passive aggressive gift of a caretaker robot from his son inadvertently invigorates his sense of purpose and manages to reopen avenues of illegal opportunity for the veteran thief.
It might be easy to see this indie as overly quirky or even sickeningly cute if it weren’t for the fact that this film very bluntly repeats that the robot is just a robot, nothing more. While it can be taught, it cannot feel. Robot and Frank is saddest and most moving when the audience stops projecting onto the robot the human qualities that we want to believe it has. That Frank is merely interacting with command based circuitry and talking in circles to himself lends the story a poignant and lonely edge. Not initially trusting or wanting a machine, Frank eventually takes a shine to the robot when he finds out that he can teach it how to pick a lock and case a joint. As the capers get more increasingly exciting, it is disconcerting but amusing that Frank has a better rapport with this robot then any human he knows. There are authentic laughs as the robot seems to be the perfect partner in crime for Frank and attune to his needs for companionship. Then again, there is the realization that having learned how to burgle from him while being reliant on his commands, the robot is fundamentally Frank- only clearer in mind and indestructible in form. The film’s main fault may be that the music soars triumphantly when Frank makes narrow escapes from the cops with the help of the robot. This misdirects the audience into thinking that Frank is friends with someone other than himself.
Langella makes sure that his character is never all the way sympathetic or relatable. He is a borderline contemptible man who doesn’t get along with others and to whom the a family has never held anything worth sticking around for. The little affection he shows to his children and a love interest (Susan Sarandon) are with presents that he has lifted. Peter Sarsgaard’s robot voice is uniform in intonation and quick to soothe the often agitated Frank with a calm tempo of response. Everything cannot be magically healed by Frank’s alliance with the robot. It will not solve loneliness or fill the emptiness in his heart that he has always tried to solve with cheap thrills.
Unlike most other films about the potential of technology in the future, this robot is meant to help and has no ill design on overthrowing authority. Here it is the human that leads the machine astray. We go with the robot into a personal hell that Frank is only faintly aware of himself- where he relives his past and the outcome stays the same. The revolutionary idea of living for someone beyond himself is occurring almost too late in his life to make any kind of impact on those who might have been able to love him. Looking at machines as tools that can extend our personalities and improve functionality, we can appreciate through Frank that there is hardly any modern fulfillment to gain by way of electronics if we are unwilling to honestly stand in judgement of ourselves and share our emotional lives with one another. Robot and Frank is something rare in that asks for us to examine our personal use of machines as direct reflections of who we are. They are platforms from which we command, write and talk into an abyss of electronic space to spread the importance of our thoughts but often they’re just somewhere we end up retreating into ourselves. We can’t hesitate to make real world connections or else we may end up like Frank, whose best and only friend is a mechanical version of himself.
– Lane Scarberry