Every month, we spotlight a quintessential Las Vegas movie
As Tony Hsieh’s estate prepares to sell off many of the late tech mogul’s real estate holdings, the era of his downtown Las Vegas dominance already feels like something of a dream. Hsieh’s influence persists, but his wholesale reinvention of downtown was never fully realized, and the effort to create a hub for independent film was especially short-lived. The 2016 film “Frank and Lola” is the primary result of the Downtown Project’s investment in independent cinema, and it provides a snapshot of both the kind of movies that Hsieh hoped would be made here and the image of downtown Las Vegas he and his collaborators were hoping to cultivate.
“Frank and Lola” isn’t some promotional video for Las Vegas and the Downtown Project, though. It’s a well-acted psychosexual drama, built around a romance between two damaged people who gravitate to each other and to Las Vegas. Vegas is the perfect place for that kind of love story, which plays out in movies like “Leaving Las Vegas,” “The Only Game in Town,” and “One From the Heart”: Two people with troubled pasts who attempt to start over (and/or self-destruct) in Las Vegas, pursuing goals that can only be realized here.
The title characters in “Frank and Lola” are both part of the movie’s burgeoning downtown cultural scene, which is still a bit aspirational compared to the real thing. Frank (Michael Shannon) is the head chef at a downtown restaurant, while Lola (Imogen Poots) is a recent fashion-school graduate who’s starting a job at a downtown incubator meant to cultivate local fashion talent. Carson Kitchen stands in for Frank’s restaurant Rue Galile, but Lola’s incubator is pure fiction, the kind of cool, forward-thinking entrepreneurship that Downtown Project would have supported.
The vibrant creative environment of downtown Vegas is the backdrop for a story about all-consuming jealousy, as the volatile Frank can’t handle Lola’s revelations about her past trauma. The movie takes a detour to Paris as Frank tracks down and confronts a man from Lola’s past, in between his meetings about taking over a new restaurant at the Encore. Writer-director Matthew Ross visually and thematically connects Las Vegas and Paris, in a way that suggests their shared status as home for tortured ambition.
“Frank and Lola” opens with a steamy sex scene between the title characters, inside Frank’s apartment at the Juhl, with huge windows offering a view of the Strat. The vision of the passionate, unpredictable lovers ravaging each other while illuminated by the downtown Vegas lights says everything about what the movie could have meant for the city. For a specific moment, at least, this was the image of Las Vegas that discerning film fans were presented with. Not the glamour of the Strip (which does make an appearance) or the seediness of back alleys, but a sleek luxury condo where sophisticated, emotionally stunted artists find brief solace together.
“Frank and Lola” is streaming on Netflix.