The Man Without a Face

(Mel Gibson, USA, 1993)


The unctuous trailer for The Man Without a Face picks out its most obvious and palatable theme – that people must be understood for who they really are, not what they look like – but avoids the murkier and more intriguing aspects of the story.

Mel Gibson makes his directorial debut with this drama in which he also stars as Justin, a reclusive, disfigured artist who befriends sensitive young Chuck (Nick Stahl), to the horror of the suspicious local community.

Gibson handles ably, if not imaginatively, this cross between a typical episode of The Wonder Years and a hothouse family melodrama in the vein of The Prince of Tides (1991). The former influence shows itself in the autumnal colour scheme, the reflective voice-over narration (mercifully infrequent), and the pious lesson about the cultural superiority of Shakespeare over comics. (Mel is obviously anxious to continue his association with the Bard after his role as Zeffirelli's Hamlet [1990].)

The melodramatic aspect is far more interesting. The film is essentially a stoic, rationalist defence of the sublime grace of male friendship in the face of both the brittle, gossipy, flighty world of women and contemporary gender politics movements. (There is an embarrassing secondary role for a radical intellectual who shuns all "authoritarian, post-Hegelian crap".)

But it's no wonder the townsfolk gawk. This Socratic teacher-student relationship carries an unmistakeable tone of disguised homoeroticism, only reinforced by the film's unsubtle misogyny.

© Adrian Martin February 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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