Families like to keep secrets. So do small towns. When the small town is essentially run by one family, you can guess there’re a lot of secrets there to be uncovered. Brad Coley’s new mystery FRANK THE BASTARD follows a young woman’s return to her birthplace after her father’s death. What she unearths are distant memories and long-buried secrets that come to change everything she thought she knew about her family, her past and herself. Starring Rachel Miner as Clair, a 33-year-old writer dealing with anxiety from her recent divorce and her father’s death, this slow burn Northern Gothic thriller delves deep into the atmosphere of a remote Maine coastal village and all the machinations of a Tennessee Williams-like extended family. I had a chance to speak with Coley a few weeks ago before the New York open of his film, which expands to Texas, Florida and San Francisco this week.

“Growing up I had gone to a lot of places in Maine, but I’d never as far as Washington County,” says Coley, the writer/director of FRANK THE BASTARD; “there’s a sign as you’re driving in going, ‘Welcome to the edge of America.’ … it was foggy, I was lost, and I see this old woman … she looked out through the fog, I think she was half-blind, and she went, ‘Yee be from here or yee be from away?’” Coley describes the region as the ‘Wild, Wild East,’ and says he felt upon discovering it much like John Ford must have entering Monument Valley – “Oh wow, I can tell so many stories here,” he reflects, “it feels like the 20th century just skipped it over.” This woman he had discovered was not putting on an act, she was speaking her most coherent English. Coley found out later “there are pockets of Washington County where people are not speaking modern day English, they’re speaking a variant of – it’s not even Middle English, it’s Old English. And I was like, wow, like, I have entered another world.”

Coley looked into shooting in Maine, in Washington County itself, “it’s the second poorest county in the United States” he says, “they could’ve used a film,” but the film incentives just weren’t there. “It was such an ambitious film anyway with the budget we had and, Maine had no film tax credit, and Massachusetts was throwing its arms open to us,” he says. They discovered a little town called Westport Point on the southern Massachusetts coastline, 35 minutes from Providence and full of ‘run-down, rural farms.’ “I think it was Rodger Corman who said, ‘Hey man, I can shoot the Pelopponesian War with two extras and an olive branch,’ says the director. However, over several drafts of the screenplay and trips back and forth to the area, he felt like he was about to capture the places and the people that inspired his imagination.

Coley is not lying that this is an ambitious film, even in the indie landscape. There is a large ensemble cast, burning buildings, and layer upon layer of back story. “Responding to the budgetary pressures … competing with Hollywood films,” says the director, “indie films have become, sort of, just so small. There’s a shrinkage that’s taken place in the scope and ambition of filmmakers.” With FRANK THE BASTARD, he wanted to create the opportunity to tell a bigger story and yet have the same character nuances of an indie film. “I was drawn to these intense  “The Godfather” and “Chinatown,” Coley says, “a certain kind of story density that really intrigued me, and that’s what I went for.”

This is actually one of the things I found most interesting about the film. It keeps getting bigger and bigger. It starts with Clair, alone, dealing with her anxieties, and then it’s her and her roommate, and then a couple people from the family, and then you see other people in the town, and then you see this giant other family, and the vast conspiracy, and then the history of the conspiracy. FRANK THE BASTARD works as sort of the opposite of pulling the sides off the onion. It’s almost like you start in the middle of the onion and you don’t realize until you get all of the sides off and you realize how she was shoved in the middle of this thing and didn’t even realize it. At the center, Rachel Miner turns in a very strong and emotionally explosive performance. “The role intimidated a lot of actresses,” says Coley, “there was a lot of actresses that were considering it, but I think the leap into that opening scene, and the whole journey of it was just…”

Rachel Miner had read the script, but originally was not available. Somehow she extricated herself; “I think she was working on a television show of some kind,” he says, and she came on board four days before principal photography. “She just came roaring in, and we had very little time to rehearse, or even talk about it,” he remembers, “it was crazy. But, whenever we did talk about it, she had this uncanny sense of what was going on.”

Actually, Miner’s performance is so strong, sometimes when she’s not on screen it feels odd. With the opposing family’s scenes, it doesn’t feel peculiar because they’re clearly the villains, but other scenes without Clair felt a little off. Because she’s such a dominant personality for the film, it’s very much different sides of her story. This is possibly the biggest difficulty of the film. FRANK THE BASTARD is really only a secondary character (fine) but Clair’s story is the only one that matters. There is a lot of time spent on her relationship with her roommate and her roommate’s relationship with an older gentleman sailor. This was especially disappointing because it seemed like the stronger choice would have been for Clair and her roommate to be a lesbian couple, and how that might have played out in this backwoods/backwards town, but that was not taken advantage of.

FRANK THE BASTARD is a film about an outsider realizing she is as connected to a foreign place as much as anyone else there, and what she does about it. It maybe could have used a bit more judicious editing (the film could really start with the arrival in Washington County) but for fans of complicated family drama and intrigue, Frank the Bastard will prove an enjoyable night and exposure to a region of America seldom seen.

FRANK THE BASTARD screens this weekend in Texas at the Premiere Renaissance Houston, the Premiere Burleson Dallas, the Presidio in San Francisco, and the Fashion 14 in Orlando.

Bears Fonte covers indie film for AMFM Magazine and programs and consults for film festivals nationwide.  He is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival as well as the former Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival.  His short The Secret Keeper played at 40 festivals, his feature iCrime was released in 2011 by Vicious Circle.

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