An aspiring actor with an extreme facial deformity undergoes an experimental procedure and ends up missing out on the role of a lifetime. Things only get worse when the life he always dreamed up ends up in the hands of a rival actor, himself facially deformed. Writer-director Aaron Schimberg combines body horror with a Shakespearean-level of ironic romantic tragedy to tell a nightmarish story about one man’s journey to reshape – and ultimately undo – himself.
Cognito ergo sum. Renee Descartes most widely recognized – and widely misinterpreted- philosophical treatise states, I think therefore I am. In A Different Man, Schimberg reframes this tenant into something similar: I think I am therefore I am. Sebastian Stan, in a starring role that is easily the best of his career, is Edward, an aspiring actor who finds his facial disfigurement to stand in the way of his career success and romantic interests. Edward crushes on new neighbor Ingrid (Renate Reinstve), an up-and-coming playwright, but she dismisses his nervous advantages for reasons apparent on its (or his) face.
Presented with a medical opportunity to transform himself into, quite literally, a different man, Edward abandons his former self only to find himself uncomfortable, and not entirely himself, in his new skin. Now wearing Sebastian Stan’s handsome face, Edward is a man bifurcated. Metaphorically drawn and quartered. In his former existence, Edward thinks of himself as held back by his condition. After his physical transformation, he sees it limited by his lack of one. Grass is greener. Edward’s life is further complicated by the arrival of Oswald, played by an entirely remarkable Adam Pearson, a rival actor with a similar facial deformation.
A Different Man is as much a dark comedy as it is a treatise on the masks we wear and how they come to define us. Moments are injected with rich dramatic irony or riddled with excruciating tension. In many ways, Schimberg’s work feels Cronenbergian; provocative, voyeuristic, and unapologetically explicit, A Different Man finds solace in making its audience squirm. That the discomfort comes from both the audiovisual stimuli and the psychological torment makes it doubly effective. Though the film often references “Beauty and the Beast” as a kind of inside joke reference point, Edward’s tortured existence is more akin to Kafka than Walt Disney.
Like Kafka, Schimberg’s film questions how appearance affects character and how character is born of appearance. Is Edward a shell of himself when he looks “normal”? Has he abandoned something essential, something inexplicably Edwardian? And are we as audience members this static “self” underneath our skin and bones? Does our self worth not fluctuate when we have a bag hair cut or put on some weight? The inner turmoil and conflict born of these questions are surrounded by increasingly heightened situations, further divorcing the new, handsome, insecure, reactive Edward from his previous self, “ugly”, insecure, and kind.
Schimberg forces the audience to examine their own discomfort with unusual faces, in one instance through a cringy corporate training video, before tipping things into abject body horror. Things become especially queasy when Edward sheds his former skin, like a gory butterfly erupting from its chrysalis, and emerges a new man. Mysteriously reborn, even to himself.
Stan is truly outstanding in the role. Delicate, damaged, and – eventually- undone, he manages to modulate his way through Edward’s inner and outer transmutation. It’s a radical turn that offers him the chance to pitch from restrained interiority to broad physicality. Renate Reinstve manages to give dimension to Ingrid that inspire empathy, pity, and disdain in equal measure. She’s quite simply wonderful, even as character craves undeserved adoration, flowers. But Adam Pearson, who most notably appeared in Jonathan Glazer’s masterful Under the Skin, is perhaps the most remarkable performer in this impressively-cast feature. He’s funny, delightful, scheming, but true to himself. Something that eludes Edward in both states of being.
At nearly two hours, A Different Man explores various stretches of Edward’s haunted existence to mixed results. The pacing in the middle section can be a bit meandering and the script doesn’t entirely stick the landing but it leaves a deep impression nonetheless. The Edward we meet in the beginning and the one we glimpse at the end is a different man, no doubt, transformed from without, exteriority burrowing within, a reinvented tragedy. Forced to watch the life he left behind unfold in front of his surgically open eyes.
CONCLUSION: Sebastian Stan has never been better than in the unnerving and darkly comic physiological thriller ‘A Different Man’. Renate Reinstve and Adam Pearson are remarkable. Tragic, human, nightmarish, and stealthy funny, this is one to watch out for.
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