'The Man Without a Face' is a story without an end

MOVIE REVIEW

August 25, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

The faceman cometh. And he entertaineth. But then he falleth-down-go-boom.

In other words, Mel Gibson's "The Man Without a Face" is unfortunately based on the script without a third act, and so it tragically deflates as it rolls onward.

Yet it's not without its quiet joys, at least for an hour or so. Gibson, directing himself without a lot of vanity and with a surprising generosity to his other performers, plays Justin McLeod, a former prep school teacher who has suffered a terrible and mysterious burn. Half his face has melted into grilled cheese, his ear a little curl of bacon fat in the glop of re-configured flesh. Thus he's chosen to live in self-imposed exile in a magnificent Maine resort village, stoically enduring the taunts of the local kids and the dark matrix of rumors that swirls about him.

But another troubled soul comes into his orbit, belonging to 12-year-old Chuck Norstadt (Nick Stahl), the unloved middle child of an over-educated, underaffectionate triple-divorcee. Chuck has just failed the entrance exam to the military academy that graduated his late father and yearns passionately to get in and to escape the indifferent care of his mother and the snide superiority of his older sister. Upon hearing that the scarred man is a former Latin teacher, he asks for tutorial help, because he has one more crack at the exam in the early fall.

For some reason, the film is set in 1968, and it gets off to an interesting but eventually irrelevant start by daring to suggest that anti-war culture was all frivolous fashion, not the high moral crusade by which identity it has entered history. The movie even dares laugh at a suitor of Chuck's mother, a Yale professor (played by Michael Masur) who is so obsequiously anti-authoritarian that he seems infantile. But revisionism, as it turns out, is hardly the theme that Gibson pursues and his stopover to indulge it comes to feel unorganic to the whole piece.

In fact, the principal flaw of "The Man Without a Face" is its lack of organicism: all its elements seem unrelated to its other elements. At one point, for example, McLeod reveals himself to be an artist whose work regularly appears in quality magazines such as Harper's; but nothing else in the story and nothing of his personality relates to art; it's just a lump of information undigested and unabsorbed into the film.

What does stir Gibson to his best work as both actor and director is the beautifully evoked relationship between the damaged man and the sad boy, each of whom helps the other heal to some degree. Gibson may have a streak of pedagogue in him; he conveys exactly the essence of great teaching, which is the ability to engage the pupil's imagination and liberate him to achieve his own selfhood. Anyone who ever had a great teacher will feel McLeod's vivid privateering of Chuck's clotted soul by which he eventually sets the boy sailing in a new and healthy direction.

But the movie begins to veer at the halfway point and is all but without direction or force by the end. There ought to be a law that only one "dark secret" is allowed per movie; the "dark secrets" in "The Man Without a Face" begin to multiply like bunnies in the hutch. Everybody has a dark secret! These emotional bombs come to cancel each other out.

Worse, there's dreary over-reliance on movie logic. It is literally inconceivable that when Chuck's mother asks him if the teacher ever "touched" him, the boy, who after all is not 5 and comes from a literate, sophisticated background, wouldn't hear the heavy vibration in her voice and think she meant it metaphorically, rather than literally physically. But he doesn't, and the movie alters course into a hysterical drama of suspected child molestation. Yet nobody ever goes to Chuck and asks "What did he do?" so that Chuck can answer.

One can speculate endlessly on the inner forces that drove such an icon of pure male beauty as Gibson to disfigure himself so grievously. And it's equally true that sooner or later most stars take a spin at burying themselves under latex scars or bad hair or hiding behind really funny walks. So maybe this is Gibson's way of saying "I am not a face without a man." But what is more to the the point is Gibson's performance as director and actor: In the former he's surest in matters of performance,getting touching work out of Stahl in particular, and less sure as more people come into the frame and still less sure at the issue of story. In the later, he's great fun and charm until the emptiness of the story reduces him, sadly, to sheer bombast.

MOVIE REVIEW

"The Man Without a Face"

Starring Mel Gibson and Nick Stahl

Directed by Mel Gibson

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13

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