'The Man Without a Face' is a story about a boy, Chuck Norstadt (played perfectly by a young Nick Stahl), who seems to be the odd man out in his family. He is consistently at odds with his mother (Margaret Whitton), sadistic older sister, Gloria (Fay Masterson), his mother's numerous dull stepfathers ('The Hairball' is played by Richard Mauser), and sometimes, his youngest sister, Megan (Gabby Hoffman).
You get a perfect sense of these inhibited relationships with his family during the opening sequence with Chuck describing his dream. He seems to be misunderstood, especially when he is constantly reminded that he is the "family dummy." He just wants out. And boarding school is his opportunity.
Chuck desperately needs to figure out a way to bone up on his academics and pass an entrance exam, which he knows he can't do on his own. That's when he meets Mr. McCleod, the town recluse. Badly burned from a car accident and carrying a dark secret, he has become the topic of much gossip. He is essentially, the Quasimodo of their sparsley populated summer village, and the people like to cruely entertain themselves with suspicions of "Hamburger Head" McCleod.
Lucky for Chuck, McCleod was a former teacher who reluctantly agrees to tutor Chuck, and the boy has to stick with it as much as he fears McCleod and hates his teaching methods--McCleod is pretty authoritarian at first. But, over time, McCleod becomes Chuck's closest, if not only friend (the other kids on the cove don't really seem to be friends in that sense). He becomes a great tutor for Chuck, as well as a surrogate paternal figure, and a source of much needed emotional guidance for Chuck. He comes to look past the disfiguring scars of Justin McCleod and see him for the person he really is. McCleod, too, learns from Chuck. In the book, author Holland, defines this as his 'golden cocoon,' the unfettered place where Chuck and McCleod share a bond and it seems like nothing can go wrong.
But something does go wrong. In the movie, the towns suspicions tear apart the friendship, as McCleod's secret is revealed and it seems like Chuck can't convince anyone how foolish and impulsive they're being, which is likewise destructive to someone as fragile as Chuck. It seems to him like whenever he has something good, someone always wants to take it away from him. It is a remarkably good movie about trying to get past the ignorance that prevents people from really getting to know one another, and such ignorance is usually dangerously destructive. And in this movie, we get one of the worst case scenarios.
'The Man Without a Face' is both a wonderful novel and movie, although the movie turns the theme on it's head when they (screenwriter Malcom MacRury and director Mel Gibson) choose to rewrite the misunderstood McCleod as a heterosexual, and make several reiterations of his sexuality, while the text version of Justin McCleod was that he was a homosexual man, and even the student came to learn and accept his own sexual orientation towards the end. The entire theme of the movie was about disregarding the town gossip and really getting to know someone for who they are. So why change that trait about the character? It seems so damn contradictory.
The movie does more to illustrate a story about how willfull ignorance guides people's perceptions. The book is much more about Chuck's need for familial affection and guidance for confronting those things in life which he is most afraid of--something that is prevalent in the movie as well, but not as much as the former. I can only guess that it was essential to write McCleod as a person who was mistakenly gay and suspected of molesting a student, in order to create a conclusion to a story that would reemphasize how people believe what they want to when they hate something (or someone) they don't know about.
I don't see why author Isabelle Holland, who narrates the tale of Chuck Norstadt, would get flack for her story as it is not one about pedophilia. A young boy is struggling to stop repressing things about himself that he finds difficult to deal with. One of those is sexual orientation, which he finally realizes in the end and can honestly say that, McCleod's teachings must have been effective, since he was no longer ashamed of himself. But so what if the person who taught him to no longer be ashamed of himself was gay? Chuck didn't learn to accept himself because his teacher was gay, but rather because of the advice of his teacher not to run away from his problems. The accusation that the story is pure pedophilia is ridiculous.
With the exception of the central characters and the general story, the movie and book are quite different from one another because it was necessary to expressing themes which are slightly different from one another. The novel is more about one person coming to terms with himself. The movie was more a statement about people in general. But both are very good, engaging stories, nonetheless.
Mel Gibson and Nick Stahl both give great performances in this coming of age tale. The movie has often been overlooked, especially when reviewing Mel Gibson's career. I'd consider it one of his best.
8 out of 9 found this helpful.
Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.