‘The Man Without a Face’ (PG-13)By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 25, 1993
In "The Man Without a Face," Mel Gibson reminds us that he doesn't need one-liners and explosive special effects to warrant our attention. Gibson, as actor and first-time director, is not only self-assured in these dual roles, but he seems relieved to let the drama carry him, rather than the reverse. The result is a movie that's both heartwarming and heart-wrenching.
Gibson actually makes a belated entrance in the film, a coming-of-age story about 13-year-old Chuck Norstadt (newcomer Nick Stahl). It's the summer of 1968 in a Maine coastal resort town, and Chuck is lost in a nuked family in which his mother (Margaret Whitton) is working her way toward a fifth marriage, often abandoning him to two half sisters who alternately pester and ignore him. Idealizing his late father, a onetime Army pilot, Chuck wants to attend a distant military academy, thus following in Dad's footsteps. Having failed the entrance exam, Chuck begs for a second chance, which he must undertake on his own, as his mother and yet another potential stepfather offer little support.
What Chuck clearly needs is an all-purpose tutor -- and a father figure, of course. In desperation, he turns to Justin McLeod (Gibson), a gruff, mysterious recluse who bears his scars outwardly: Half of his body, and most notably his face, has been horribly burned, though few of the townspeople know how. The local kids dismiss him as "the freak" and "hamburger head," so it's hardly a wonder that McLeod opts for rigid solitude.
But under that rough exterior lies a kindly heart and long-unused credentials as a prep school teacher (a career that ended after a car crash disfigured McLeod and killed a student). Since Chuck's needs are greater than his fears, he approaches McLeod, almost demanding to be mentored. After some wary circling, a fragile bond is established between pupil and teacher.
Things go well, mostly because they do so at first in virtual secrecy. But as Chuck begins to sense the whole McLeod, he begins to forget the scar tissue, to move from fear to fascination to friendship. Then an old rumor of child molestation resurfaces -- it turns out that the student who died in the car crash had an (unrequited) fixation on his beloved teacher -- and the new relationship is imperiled through escalating misunderstandings on the part of Chuck's family and the townspeople.
The film, based on a novel by Isabelle Holland and with a screenplay by Malcolm MacRury, is a bit clumsy at the start in establishing the relationships in Chuck's family, and it seems to speed up again at the end, racing to catharsis. But the core of both the film and the story is the gradually built bond between a student and a teacher who clearly need each other -- and Gibson as director unfolds its details at a deliberate, believable pace (the film clocks in at 114 minutes). He's clear about the strengths, weaknesses and instincts of his key characters, and they seem to connect, rather than to be connected. Gibson also has a sensitivity to the rhythms of a small town and the dynamics of power that can exist there.
There are some obvious reference points -- "To Sir With Love" and "Dead Poets Society" come to mind -- but it's refreshing in this day and age to find a student-teacher film that's not focused on some martial arts discipline. Like those sports models, "The Man Without a Face" is about self-discovery, self-discipline and rising to a challenge. How sweet that poetry, theater, opera and a boy's evolution from Spiderman to Macbeth can fit the formula.
As Chuck, Nick Stahl is an engagingly confused adolescent trying to learn not only the fundamentals of Latin, but the fundamentals of Chuck. "People are afraid of what they don't know," he says at one point, and that applies across a lot of boards.
As McLeod, actor Gibson is at the service of director Gibson. The burn makeup on his face is certainly hard to look at but that side is not always to the camera. It's there often enough to underscore McLeod's pain, however: "I'm a troll, it's my role, my part," he complains bitterly.
Once his character has been freed from gruff misanthropy, Gibson uses his voice in rich emotional variants that seem almost radio-drama driven. Mel even gets to do a little more Shakespeare.
Though Stahl and Gibson carry the film, the director has left room for others to make an impression: Gaby Hoffman, as Chuck's precociously feminist 10-year-old sister, steals her scenes (as she does in "Sleepless in Seattle"); Whitton manages to temper her apparent selfishness with genuine love for Chuck; and Richard Masur is quite funny as an overly hip suitor. The film pokes gently at the high spirits and self-centeredness of the late '60s but there is also a palpable sense of innocence -- lost, regained, and lost again.
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