THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE marks a solidly crafted directorial debut for actor Mel Gibson, who approaches his melodramatic story with commendable restraint. The heart-tugging script is overly sentimental, but Gibson is to be congratulated for taking a few uncompromising detours in his
handling of the material.
Alienated in a 1960s household dominated by women, teenager Chuck Norstadt (Nick Stahl) yearns to gain admittance to the military academy his father attended. Having failed the entrance exam once, he elects to try again. Chuck is belittled by his jealous older sister, Gloria (Fay Masterson), and
humored by his much-married mother, Catherine (Margaret Whitton), who doesn't appreciate his fixation with military school.
Also living under a stormcloud in the picturesque Maine town of Cranesport is another outsider, Justin McLeod (Mel Gibson), who's been hideously disfigured in an accident. During a routine mission with other youngsters to harass "the freak," Chuck learns that McLeod used to be a schoolteacher.
Lying to his mother about how he spends his time, Chuck persuades McLeod to tutor him for the exam. The professor's unusual syllabus includes setting the boy tasks like digging up and refilling a hole (shades of KARATE KID). He also reveals himself as a gifted artist, and the two develop a bond.
McLeod's disfigurement, it turns out, is the result of a car crash in which a teenaged student of his was killed.
After an unpleasant incident at home drives Chuck to spend the night at McLeod's house, the sheriff searches for him and takes him back to his mother. When questioned, Chuck denies having been abused by McLeod; nevertheless, she and most of the rest of the community become suspicious, and the
two are forced to sever their ties until an investigation can be held. The two bid farewell, with Chuck reassuring McLeod he does not believe--as some do--that the teacher had abused the now-dead student. Chuck passes the entrance exam and McLeod denies the charges of abuse brought against him in
court. McLeod tells Chuck in a letter that he can never see him again and, a few years later, watches proudly from a discreet distance as his pupil graduates from the academy.
Surprisingly touching, THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE makes the basically static teacher-student relationship come resoundingly to life. Gibson's forceful playing, in particular, elevates what is essentially a male weepie to a higher plane. In Hollywood's heyday, scars were used to symbolize an evil or
traumatic past that could be obliterated through plastic surgery and the rehabilitation of love. Here, there is no surgical remedy; Gibson bears his disfigurement like a Scarlet Letter, a representation of his failure of conscience in another educational environment. The lesson is not that beauty
is skin deep, but that ugliness is irrelevant where true talent is concerned.
What transforms the banal nature of the two-lost-souls storyline is the accuracy and detail with which Chuck's dysfunctional family is presented. Equally well-documented is the rumor-mill mentality of the small town where Chuck and McLeod do penance for sins both real and imagined. Instead of
caricaturing the well-meaning townspeople as torch-wielding vigilantes, the film slyly exposes the more insidious evil that coagulates when do-gooders jump to the wrong conclusions. THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE never fully comes to grips with the homophobia that the script flirts with, but it does look
honestly and convincingly at the way in which reputations can be arbitrarily destroyed.
The film's screenplay buys into all the usual cliches about teacher-student bonding and McLeod's gradual emergence from his shell is a little too predictable. Yet Gibson and company act out their respective struggles for acceptance with finesse, and the neophyte director, clearly blessed with a
talent for composition, makes each shot count. (Profanity, adult situations.)
Cast & Details See all »
- Released: 1993
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE marks a solidly crafted directorial debut for actor Mel Gibson, who approaches his melodramatic story with commendable restraint. The heart-tugging script is overly sentimental, but Gibson is to be congratulated for taking a few unco… (more)