Fixing Frank

Here TV! Video,

Michael Selditch

Ken Hanes,
based on his play

Dan Butler,
Andrew Elvis Miller,
Paul Provenza

Unrated, 103 minutes

My Analylist Told Me That I Was Right Out Of My Head
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, December 2009

Don't get me started on what I think about ex-gay "therapy." Psychologists and ex-gay ministries that believe they can "cure" homosexuality are peddling one of the biggest scams ever perpetrated on the public. Sell us some snake oil or the Brooklyn Bridge while you're at it. Reparative therapy only works when there is something to repair and being gay is not a disease. These charlatans ignore scientific evidence and inflict irreparable damage on the weak and the impressionable.

Fixing Frank (2002), adapted by Ken Hanes from his stage play and directed by Michael Selditch, tackles this controversial subject. Frank Johnston (Andrew Elvis Miller) is a journalist who is tired of writing about tulips and lawn fetes and is trying his hand at investigative reporting. His psychotherapist boyfriend, Dr. Jonathan Baldwin (Paul Provenza), has talked him into attending sessions with Dr. Arthur Apsey (Dan Butler), a psychologist who specializes in "identity disorder issues." Frank pretends to be a patient who doesn't want to be gay anymore.
Frank is hoping to make his reputation by exposing Dr. Apsey as a fraud. Jonathan is the poster child for gay activism and wants to nail Apsey. He considers Apsey's approach and the basis of his psychotherapy as "unethical, inappropriate, immoral" and "perhaps malpractice." He certainly has an axe to grind and refers to the quack doctor only as "Frankenstein." Because he is also a psychologist, Jonathan coaches Frank so that he will say the right things without arousing suspicion. Frank wants to please his partner but is uneasy with the subterfuge. He is also bothered by his performance during his first session in Frankenstein's laboratory. "I dripped of self loathing that was so terrifyingly easy to find in myself," he confesses to Jonathan. "I was the perfect public service announcement for fag haters."

There is something unsettling about Dr. Apsey's smile from the very first scene. His demeanor seems pleasing and helpful but he will soon be revealed to be a master manipulator. Frank doesn't lie very well and his disorientation is picked up upon by the doctor. Frank, at his partner's urging, has fabricated a story about a self destructive sex binge but then, in a panic, suddenly blurts out that he made it all up. Back home, he tells Jonathan "Maybe it's his eyes, they suck words out of me and everything backfires." He's befuddled because he is expecting Apsey to tell him that he's bad and doesn't understand why he doesn't. "He knows you don't trust him," Jonathan counters, "So he expresses compassion to keep you off balance." If that was the doctor's intention, he has succeeded. "I think he likes me," Frank says. "I don't want him to like me."

Frank begins to have doubts about their project and this leads to escalating arguments with his partner. Frank is feeling vulnerable and, during the next session, he begins to spill his guts as if he really were the doctor's patient and not playacting. His conscience gets the best of him and he confesses the deception to Dr. Apsey. When the doctor orders him to leave, Franks begs to stay and offers to interview him so that he can tell his side. "I was talked into things that I wish I hadn't been," Frank bemoans. He explains that he initially came to be saved - not by him but by the article he is going to write. "But then you surprised me," he says. "You helped me." Jonathan is furious, while Frank objects to having to lie in order to get the truth.
At about this point, the viewer begins to get the sensation that Jonathan might be just as manipulative and controlling of Frank as his nemesis, Dr. Frankenstein. Jonathan wants Apsey to go down and doesn't care about his partner's doubts. Frank is beginning to feel that Jonathan is using him and Apsey is able to exploit the young writer's confusion. Apsey's subtle brainwashing efforts cause Frank to question his six year relationship with Jonathan and, before long, his sexuality too. Suddenly his very identity is at stake.
And so the contest of wills begins. Our hapless hero finds himself a pawn being manipulated by both Apsey and his partner, and Fixing Frank becomes a very harrowing psychological mindfuck as both doctors do battle for Frank's mind. As the cat and mouse games increase in intensity, Apsey is revealed to be pure evil. You've never seen such a wolf in sheep's clothing. But, truth be told, Apsey turns into one of those villains you love to hate - like Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Neither Jonathan or Frank fully anticipated how smart their enemy is and he is a conniving one. When Frank comes back to interview Apsey, the doctor is ready and his Machiavellian talents really begin to surface. "You've initiated a game that I'm powerless to terminate," he says, "And so I intend to win." He has checked out Frank thoroughly and knows who his partner is and so, he continues, "Information is strength, I intend to play your game from a position of strength." He also begins to systematically place doubts in Frank's mind. ("Has [Jonathan] never told you that stealing my clients is his favorite pastime?")
During one of the film's most frightening scenes, Apsey asks Frank if he would take a pill that would change him to straight (if such a thing existed) and asks him to indulge in a hypothetical. He then offers Frank a pill and uses all of his powers of seduction and persuasion to coax him to swallow it. Most gay men and women have had moments of indecision, usually when they are first coming out to themselves, and have wondered if it was possible to change. But, as Frank so succinctly points out, wondering isn't the same as wanting. Apsey dares him to take his therapy and prove it doesn't work.
I've said much but there is more to come and I'll leave it for viewers to discover the rest of the film on their own. The dialogue is as sharp as surgical steel and, as Jonathan is quick to remind Frank, words can be as dangerous as aversion shock therapy. "He will open your skull like cracking an egg," he tells Frank, "He will knead your brain like dough until you won't even remember that you have a penis, let alone what to do with it." This is certainly a writer's film; who needs action when the talking is this interesting? Fixing Frank is a very creepy movie that builds to an intensity that I haven't seen on the screen in a long time.
Fixing Frank's stage roots are evident but, unlike a lot of online critics, I don't consider this to be a bad thing. Too many films based on plays, in my opinion, are ruined by studio insistance that they be "opened up." Look at all those exquisitely shot Ingmar Bergman films where large chunks consist of two people sitting in a room inflicting mental pain on each other and then tell me that isn't cinematic. At least half of Fixing Frank takes place in Dr. Apsey's office lending the proper air of claustrophobia that is essential for this tale to work. The many tight close-ups augment the suffocating atmosphere. The film brilliantly utilizes a common stage device that is rarely used on the screen. When Jonathan drills Frank on what to say in Frankenstein's office, the director cuts back and forth between the two locations so that Frank's coaching becomes part of the dialogue between the doctor and patient. Jonathan will then begin to appear, even though he isn't really there, in the sessions to coach and to react negatively to the doctor's subtle machinations. When Frank is offered the "magic pill," Jonathan is sitting next to him and ordering him not to take it. Later, when Frank and Jonathan are at each other's throats, Apsey will appear in these scenes as well to add sarcastic comments. This technique is brilliant, and often adds much tension breaking humor, and I refute anyone who gripes that this makes the film "too stagy."

Fixing Frank confirms my belief that a big budget isn't necessary to make a compelling film; all you need is a good script and capable actors. The acting and the cast's timing, throughout, is superb. Aside from a few bad music cues near the end, I can find little fault with the film. I have no problems from a political standpoint either. Apsey may seem, at times, to be treated with more compassion than he deserves but you will not leave the film feeling that he is the injured party (unless you're James Dobson). Giving Jonathan his own agenda and questionable ethics was a masterstroke and makes for a fascinating story in which nothing is black and white and the viewer doesn't know which end is up anymore. Both psychologists will reveal things about themselves that are unexpected and the audience is constantly kept off balance. Never underestimate the power of language. When I first saw Silence of the Lambs, a long time ago, I was far more creeped out by listening to Hannibal Lechter talk than I was by the more conventional horror elements. Monsters aren't always wearing a hockey mask and brandishing a machete. Fixing Frank is food for the brain, and a cautionary tale that is scarier than any slasher flick.


See also:
Save Me