When I discovered Ink a little over 5 years ago, I saw a nifty little film brewing with potential. Ever since I've been waiting for Jamin Winans' next film, hoping to find reassurance that Ink wasn't just a one off and that Winans was a keeper. It took him a while, but his next feature film has finally arrived. As it turns out The Frame was really worth the wait, presenting itself as a more mature and accomplished film without losing its streaks of originality.
Jamin Winans is the kind of director that likes to do as much on his own as humanly possible. For The Frame he took the writing, composing, editing and directing all upon himself. It puts him in a group of directors (Shinya Tsukamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Shane Carruth, ...) who have a very distinct and unique flair running throughout their films. Their work isn't always as accessibly or universally loved, but by eliminating some of the hurdles between what's in their brain and the final output there are a lot less compromises that end up dragging down their films. I believe it makes for a purer kind of cinema.
Just like Ink, The Frame construct a world that is uniquely linked to its director. Sure enough, you can draw parallels to Enemy, Reconstruction, Abre los Ojos, Lost Highway and a bunch of other well-known mystery films, but only when you start singling out specific moments or elements in The Frame's universe. The world in its entirety is unlike anything you'll find in other films, and that's exactly how an urban fantasy like this should set itself apart.
The Frame follows the lives of Alex and Sam. Alex is a member of a gang of thieves which pulls off elaborate heists, Sam is an emergency medical worker who finds herself in dangerous situations on a regular basis. The odd thing is that both are watching the lives of the other through a show on TV. Until one day when they find themselves staring at each other through the TV screen. Completely baffled by what is going on, they start an investigation in order to find the cause of this strange disturbance.
Visually, The Frame is a little less bold compared to Ink. It's still very deliberately styled and there's enough visual trickery left to wow the audience, but Winans clearly didn't need to worry as much about hiding his budgetary limitations underneath a thick layer of visual make-up. It gives The Frame a more accomplished look, but at the same time it also loses some of its vitality. The film looks amazing in its own right though, with strong framing, beautiful use of color and some very cool special effects, so there's really no need to complain.
Once again Winans is responsible for the score of his film and that pays off big time. Timing and atmosphere match perfectly with what's happening on screen. The score also takes a very central place in the storyline, relying on an acapella version of the film's theme song to link both realities together. Winans puts a lot of focus on the music and while not everyone may appreciate that, I think he pulls it off wonderfully, greatly adding to the mysterious atmosphere.
The acting is one of the film's few weaker points. Not that the actors are bad per se, but they clearly struggle with the mysterious nature of their parts. At times Carranza and Mualem look a little too bewildered and it isn't just their characters wondering what the hell is going on. It's not a consistent problem as some scenes turned out well enough, but when Winans plays his trump cards his cast has a lot of trouble keeping up with the film.
The Frame's build-up is deliberate and requires a little patience. The first hour is spent slowly revealing the setup, with the two main characters trying to figure out what exactly they're up against. After that the pace picks up, but don't expect clear and concise answers. Winans shows rather than tells, hints are dropped left and right but most of the puzzling is left to the audience. It's a good way to keep the mystery going, but without a clear explanation at the end some people are going to be left feeling a little disappointed. Personally I love an ending like that.
There aren't many directors who can pull of urban fantasy like Winans can, even when he only has a rather limited budget to work with. The Frame is a stylish mystery, a film that oozes atmosphere and that kept me glued to my seat from start to finish. It's not for everyone, but if you like your cinema off the beaten track than you owe it to yourself to give The Frame a fair chance. (American) Cinema could use more directors like Winans and since he doesn't enjoy studio support he needs a loyal fanbase to survive.