Sundance 2024 Review: A DIFFERENT MAN, Idea-Rich Genre Mash-Up Stumbles, Falls, Dissatisfies
In Aaron Schimberg’s (Chained for Life, Go Down South) latest film, A Different Man, Edward (Sebastian Stan), a man euphemistically described as “facially different,” finds himself unmoored from the life he once had and rejected and the life he thought he wanted and accepted.
A surreal character study that initially turns on psychological realism before making the unearned leap into psychological fantasy, A Different Man’s initially enthralling, wholly original take eventually devolves into frustrating wish-fulfillment-as-horror, one part Elephant Man, one part Face/Off, and one part The Double (Dostoevsky).
Practically unrecognizable under multiple layers of latex and makeup, Stan essays Edward, a not-quite-middle-aged man who qualifies as “facially different.” Over an extraordinarily ordinary day, Edward is met with a mix of repulsion, ignorance, or outright rejection by the “normals” he encounters.
That doesn’t stop Edward, however, from quixotically, not to mention paradoxically, pursuing a career as a working actor. He gets one role in an industrial training video squarely aimed at making “normals” comfortable with people like Edward.
As a side note, Schimberg never reveals how Edward survives in New York City, affording rent, utilities, and food, but apparently, that’s a question Schimberg would prefer audiences not ask, let alone try to discover for themselves. Given the small shrine to his late mother in his one-bedroom, maybe Edward inherited the apartment from her along with a regular income to cover his expenses. That’s pure speculation on this writer’s part, though.
At least initially, it’s a minor misstep that either deserves the benefit of the doubt or serves as a signpost that A Different Man will unfold in a sidereal universe, similar to our own, but different in key ways, like the new neighbor, Ingrid (Renate Reinsve), a wannabe playwright, who meets and greets Edward with a welcoming warmness and generosity of spirit that immediately beguiles Edward. She’s as intrigued with Edward as he’s besotted with her. Edward, however, can’t imagine a world, any world, where Ingrid would see him as more than a friend or neighbor.
It’s at that exact moment that Schimberg introduces a science-fiction (Face/Off) element: a new drug cocktail that promises Edward and people like Edward the opportunity at a new life with an entirely new face. Edward doesn’t pause at the offer and in short order, Edward, now looking entirely like Stan, emerges from his cocoon-like existence. With a new face comes a new life selling real estate, affording a bigger, better apartment, and bedding beautiful women. In Schimberg’s account, it’s also an empty, meaningless existence for Edward.
In another destabilizing narrative switch-up, Edward finds himself drawn to an off-Broadway theater and a thinly veiled play written by Ingrid based on Edward’s old life. Before Edward, donning a mask to play his fictionalized self, can settle into a half-life with Ingrid, a doppelgänger, Oswald (Adam Pearson), appears to “steal” the life Edward should have somehow achieved for himself pre-transformation.
A head-scratcher requiring a canyon-sized leap of faith in Schimberg’s storytelling abilities, it ultimately devolves into reverse wish-fulfillment, a funhouse mirror of the real (our) world that ultimately undermines whatever ideas about life, art, and self-acceptance Schimberg wanted to convey through A Different Man.
A Different Man premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. A24 will release the film later this year.
A Different Man
- Aaron Schimberg
- Aaron Schimberg
- Sebastian Stan
- Renate Reinsve
- Adam Pearson