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Release Date: 06/03/22 [In Cinemas]

Genre: Thriller

Studio: Redbud Studios


"A tale of love and violence when a man on his emotional last legs finds a savior seductively dancing in a run-down strip club. And a life most certainly headed off a cliff suddenly becomes redirected - as EVERYTHING is now worth dying for."


Frank and Penelope follows the story of its two leads, Frank (Billy Budinich) and Penelope (Caylee Cowan), as they attempt to start a new life by running from a world that has chewed them up and spat them out. Frank, upon being emasculated by his cheating wife, flees to a strip-club to cry away his night. There, he meets Penelope, a sex-worker who excels at conning clients out of their money. However, Frank’s emotionally vulnerable state appears to woo Penelope, and launches them into a journey out into the desert, where they meet up with a religious cult run by Chisos (Johnathon Schaech) and Mabel (Donna D’Errico). It is in this town that Frank and Penelope will have to work through the emotional baggage in their lives, and help the lost daughter of a sheriff, Molly Dalton (Sydney Scotia).


What makes Frank and Penelope fascinating is how its story is told; and not in a good way. Writers John Thaddeus and Sean Patrick Flanery attempt to create a spiritual successor to Thelma & Louise and True Romance lacks both the vision and style that rocketed those films to stardom. It’s an amalgamation of elements from both films; there’s crime, love, abandoned villages and creepy dudes. And while these could be coherently combined into a single story, here they are combined in the least efficient way possible to tell two different stories.


The story that has been promoted is rooted in the relationship between the emasculated Frank and the sex worker Penelope, but the pacing, script, and performances never truly sell the tension inherent in that relationship. Rather, the filmmaking and script seem written to enhance the second act of the film, which is primarily focused on a cannibal cult town that devours any sinful people that pass through its motel.


These two stories are mixed together to form the films 113-minute runtime, though elements of each story are heavily under-developed and don’t blend into a unified whole. While the ideas of uncertain love, unfaithful partners, religious hypocrisy, legalism, and sexual politics permeate the film, they aren’t introduced early enough to be explored in full detail. This also muddies the guiding idea of the film, as the films climax occurs because of only one of these themes.


While the dialogue occasionally delves into stylistic flourishes, especially regarding the character of Penelope, it’s too little to hold this project together. The longer soliloquies manage to put that style front and center, but much of the back half is filled with short statements that cheapen the exchanges between characters.

Luckily, the performances are strong across the board. Caylee Cowan runs in circles with the script and excels in the role of a sex worker who may not be entirely trust-worthy. Both Donna D’Errico and Johnathon Schaech sell their roles as the leaders of the sin-eater cult, in roles that emanate the energy of a Mike Flanagan project. Sydney Scotia’s minor role as Molly Dalton exudes charisma, and the various cult members (Brian Maillard, Charley Koontz, and Jade Lorna Sullivan) all have a nervous and creepy demeanor that few other films have. Through these performances the film comes alive, being electric and full of tension throughout the second half.


The weakest performance comes from Billy Budinich, who plays Frank. While the performance is serviceable on a scene-by-scene basis, it fails to add tension to the relationship at the centre of the film, and that critical failing holds this film back.


Speaking of holding the film back, Jared Forman’s score for the film is little more than white noise. It’s quickly overshadowed by the pop needle drops within the film, which are used to create every emotional mood under the sun. They can be heart-warming and sexy or create unease through juxtaposition with the on-screen events. It’s not the most memorable needle-drops, but they aren’t lazy. The audio mix is clear throughout, giving each sound the space it needs. This is the one department that felt consistent throughout the film, which is worthy of praise.


On the opposite end are the cinematography, editing, and special effects. Each of these elements compound together to create a grungy reimagining of the south-western deserts of Texas, and while that idea isn’t inherently wrong, its execution is poor and unbearable. The special effects makeup for blood, piss, and limbs are all convincing when done practically. Molly Dalton’s final stance as a bloodied survivor is a great example of this near the end of the film. However, when the effects are done through post-production, it becomes unbearably obvious. Each gunshot that isn’t performed by a dummy practically feels unbearably fake, with a cloud of blood being particularly memorable. When combined with editing that purposely avoids showing any sustained wounds, it becomes apparent that the hyper violent style could not be sustained by the budget. And Chris Patterson’s editing is also full of varying quality. While the choreography often incorporates a Texas Switch to make an “invisible” edit, the actual cuts in the film are little more than functional. Worse, some of the editing, especially on a structural scale, is hard to follow. However, there are also moments of genius, where tension is maintained in the second act through the usage of cutting on a beat. It’s simple techniques, but the variance in quality is stunning.


And yet, the worst part of this film is its lighting and cinematography. While the framing of shots are often functional (and sometimes great), the lighting is often horrible. Scenes are never imperceptible, but most are aggravating to look at. This is accentuated during night sequences which utilize both orange and blue light, as the angles and colour grading make for sharp shadows and light lines that are amateur. But those are better than the desert shots, which feel under-exposed. It’s bad from the ground up, and the few well-lit scenes are far away from one another.


All together, Frank and Penelope is a bloated mess of a film that has surprisingly little to say about the central relationship. And though it pales in comparison to the films that inspired it, it is an erotic thriller worth watching for the performances alone. If this was a stage play, I would give it straight A’s.

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