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MOVIE REVIEW : Two Sides of Gibson Emerge in 'Man Without a Face'

August 25, 1993|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The Man Without a Face" (citywide), which marks Mel Gibson's ambitious and largely successful directorial debut, opens with a dream sequence in which a 12-year-old boy imagines himself as the star of a military academy parade. In the reviewing stand his mother beams proudly, his nasty elder half-sister has duct tape slapped across her mouth and his younger half-sister's smile is no longer marred by braces. But the dream, which is accompanied by the boy's narration, starts wobbling because someone's missing--the father that the boy cannot really remember.

The boy, Chuck Norstadt (Nick Stahl), awakens to the reality of a pleasant house on a New England harbor during the summer of 1968. Chuck, who has always been made to feel not very bright by the three females in his life, has failed the entrance exam of the military academy he craves to attend, both as an escape from home and, most important, because his father went there. Despite his mother's scorn, he becomes adamant about taking the exam over. But who will serve as his tutor so that he can have a hope of passing?

We already know the answer, unlikely as it may seem, because we've caught a glimpse through a car window of the ruined right side of the face of Justin McLeod (Gibson). It is a mass of scar tissue, clearly the result of fire. For seven years McLeod has lived in isolation in a large old house across the bay and is such a recluse that the elderly couple who run the local grocery stay open late so that he can shop unseen. Since no one in the community actually knows anything about him, he is the subject of endless cruel jests and bizarre speculation. Chance will soon bring together the man and the boy.

As in such dramas of disfigurement such as "The Elephant Man" and "Mask," "The Man Without a Face," which Gibson directed from Malcolm MacRury's adaptation of Isabelle Holland's novel, McLeod is carefully introduced through a series of glimpses, each disclosing a bit more of his appearance than the

last. McLeod is now a prestigious illustrator--we'd like to know how he became that--but formerly was an outstanding prep school teacher. Once Chuck gets down to work we're prepared to see the man beyond the disfigurement, just as the boy is.

As an actor and as a director Gibson shines in the credible and sensitive way in which he develops the pupil-and-teacher relationship, which in turn gives way to a loving father-and-son friendship. Gibson and his collaborators understand that McLeod is logically going to remain an essentially reticent man, even if he does learn to laugh and smile again. He's lived alone for too long to be anything else; Chuck has his work cut out for him not only in winning from him the paternal love and approval he craves so desperately but also in merely meeting McLeod's strict standards of discipline and scholarship. The scenes between Chuck and McLeod are as solid as Maine granite, and while giving himself a sizable stretch as an actor, Gibson has at the same time directed Stahl, the film's true star, in a wonderfully winning portrayal of youthful resilience and determination.

In his direction Gibson, a storyteller of admirable simplicity, brings the same assurance and crispness to Chuck's scenes with his family. His much-married, preoccupied mother (Margaret Whitton) and his elder half-sister (Fay Masterson) are truly unlikable. Gibson wisely refuses them any bids for sympathy yet takes care to show that they're human. The mother can rouse herself on occasion and pay attention with warmth and even insight. As for the sister, there's a reason, not that it's an excuse, why she behaves so badly toward Chuck. Indeed, there's a sad secret involving Chuck's father, and a far worse injustice involving how McLeod got so badly scarred. Let it be said that "The Man Without a Face" is not quite so predictable as it initially seems.

Where the film threatens to lose its balance is in suggesting that there's not a single individual in the entire community who speaks of McLeod without scorn. You can expect cruelty on the part of youngsters, but surely there has to be, even in crusty Yankee territory, at least one adult voice of compassion, even if that voice is drowned out. (McLeod in fact doesn't look all that hideous as to be so horrifying to behold.) Yet when the film's powerful moment of truth occurs, there's no denying that the ignorance it reveals is absolutely convincing. You could wish, however, that the dialogue wasn't always so carefully polished, every phrase turned so beautifully.

Indeed, in the film's initial scenes there's so much repartee going on between Chuck and his sisters that they threaten to seem like typical movie brats. Fortunately, the talk becomes plainer and more real as the film moves into its fundamentally serious mode. (The film's best, much-needed light touches are provided by the always-deft Richard Masur as a shaggy, snobby Harvard academic who is the leading candidate to become the mother's fifth husband.)

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