Judge Bill Treadway insists that Mel Gibson's role as a disfigured misfit isn't a shameless Oscar bid.
No, this isn't a documentary about Michael Jackson!
In 1993, Mel Gibson took on a new challenge: directing. The Man Without a Face, his first effort, has finally seen the light of day on DVD. Does Gibson's film still hold up after all these years?
Facts of the Case
Justin McLeod (Mel Gibson, Braveheart, The Year of Living Dangerously) is a reclusive man who resides in the mountains off Martha's Vineyard. His face is horribly disfigured, the result of a freak accident. Much to his chagrin, the town gossips about him. Meanwhile, young Chuck (Nick Stahl, In the Bedroom, Disturbing Behavior) desperately wants to escape the hell he calls home. His mother ignores him in favor of trying to land husband number four. His sisters drive him crazy. His solution: enter a military academy. His sole problem is that he has failed the entrance exam.
A chance occurrence results in Chuck and McLeod meeting face to face. Noticing a military academy trophy among his belongings, Chuck asks McLeod to tutor him for the next exam. McLeod reluctantly agrees. After a shaky start, a friendship grows between the two opposites.
Making the leap from acting to directing can be a dicey proposition, especially for an established star like Mel Gibson. Higher expectations and greater attention are often placed on established stars than on newcomers. Some stars, such as Warren Beatty (Reds, Dick Tracy) and Kevin Costner (Open Range), succeed brilliantly. Others, such as Nicolas Cage (Sonny) and Prince (Under the Cherry Moon) fall flat on their bums. I'm happy to report that Gibson is in the former category. His film is coherent and often moving, despite a rather serious flaw we will discuss later.
One of Gibson's strengths as a director is his ability to get great performances from his cast. Peter Bogdanovich once said that the first true test of a successful director is to direct a child. Gibson manages to pass that test with Nick Stahl, who plays Chuck. Stahl has rarely been this good on screen. Chuck is a kid with a lot of complexes, most of them instigated by his family of nuts. Stahl keeps it real rather than coloring up his performance with a lot of whining and pouting. We feel for this alleged misfit. Directing oneself can also be a very difficult task, with most failing. Gibson passes with flying colors, creating a performance that is deep, true, and heartfelt. Gibson also wisely chooses a role that makes him a legitimate lead without having to be on screen all the time. He is also an effective visual filmmaker: He has a solid gift for capturing visual beauty on film and allowing it to balance the story.
Spoiler warning: If you have not seen The Man Without a Face, skip right to the Closing Statement. Otherwise, read on.
After eighty successful minutes of character study, The Man Without a Face takes a dramatic left turn from which it never really recovers. The Gibson character is accused of being a child molester. It's a revelation that is more suited to a soap opera than a character study. The novel this film is based on is unread by me, so I have no idea whether this plot strand was there already. Nevertheless, it feels tacked on; it's just there to engender feelings of hatred toward Gibson's persecutors. I hate it when dicey subject matter is injected into a film just to manipulate a certain reaction in the audience. That is the main reason why I despised Patch Adams, much to the chagrin of my friends.
If I had written the screenplay, the molestation angle would have been the first to go. Why not have the Gibson character be a victim of people's reprehensible disgust for deformed individuals? The fact that this kid would be the only one to connect to him would have made the film's message of unexpected friendship have greater resonance. By settling for a formulaic, exploitative angle, the film is seriously flawed. Maybe I'm making too much of it. But those are my feelings.
Warner presents the film in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The transfer is simply exceptional. The widescreen image is beautiful to look at, with vivid, realistic colors just staring right back at you. Edge enhancement is nowhere to be seen. The sole flaws in the image are some light grain and some scattered specks. But they only appear sporadically in scant scenes, and most will not notice them.
The keep case lists the audio mix as Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround stereo. It is not. Hitting the display button, I found that the words "Dolby Digital 2.0 Dolby Surround" appeared on both the English and French language tracks. Nonetheless, they are great audio mixes all the same, with rich, vibrant sound and great clarity that VHS simply cannot recreate.
Extra content is this disc's Achilles' heel. The film's original theatrical trailer, presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, is in good shape. A making-of featurette is also provided for your enjoyment, but this is all too brief at 9 minutes and 50 seconds. While it does feature fresh recollections from Gibson and Stahl, I simply wanted more. Why not a commentary track or a longer featurette, perhaps triple the length?
$19.98 is a bit too steep for a relatively barebones disc, but the film, imperfect as it may be, is still worth seeing, and this is the best presentation of the film to date. So it's all up to you, dear reader.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Making-Of Featurette
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