If there’s one thing every person on Earth can bond over it’s some form of self-loathing. It’s a trillion-dollar business, trying to slam shut the yaps of those voices in our heads with creams and fancy cars, exercise equipment, and elocution classes. Basically, the whole of capitalism is founded on the concept of “Here is something you don’t like about yourself and what you can do about it, for a cost.” And there’s no director today who’s confronting the beauty trap we’ve built for ourselves more savagely than writer-director Aaron Schimberg, whose latest and biggest film to date (following his similarly-themed masterwork Chained For Life in 2018) is a darkly hilarious Kafka-by-way-of-Kaufman treatise on the subject.
A Different Man stars no less than the beautiful Bucky Barnes himself, Mr. Sebastian Stan, in the role of Edward, a man who’s found himself living with neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that has progressively swollen his head up with tumors. (It’s often mistaken for the disease that John Merrick of “The Elephant Man” fame had, although that was Proteus syndrome.) Disfigured beyond recognition, Edward lurks in the corners of his own life—more out of necessity than desire, which we see when his pretty new neighbor Ingrid (Renate Reinsve of The Worst Person in the World) bumps into him while moving in and instinctively yelps in fright.
Schimberg doesn’t shy away from the way the world reacts to Edward’s disfigurement—rather the director luxuriates in it (another neighbor of Edward’s mutters “Jesus Christ” like clockwork every time he sees him in the hallway) until it spills over into comic absurdity. This is the heightened reality of a Barton Fink or an Eraserhead—a self-consciously dirty apartment complex thrumming with cockroaches and stained wallpaper and the piling up of indignities that prove no, it’s not coincidence; the world really is out to get you, exactly you, and just you, my friend.
It’s the kind of movie where a slow drip coming from Edward’s ceiling will inevitably turn into a surreal nightmare cascade of WTF muck that will almost kill him—this is a world where our existential fears begin taking on physical substance just so they can assault us. Basically, it’s a showcase for the torrent of humiliations that existing-whilst-anxious can and do often feel like, and you can either laugh at that, or you can run for safety and shelter—personally, I think that Schimberg is proving to be one of the great satirists working today, and this movie is a riot.
Which isn’t to say it’s also not exploring serious subjects. It’s just that Schimberg is a disfigured person himself (he was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate), and so he’s freed up to not be self-serious about all that jazz. His films to date have felt daring and subversive in ways that other filmmakers daren’t tread—Chained For Life and A Different Man are fearlessly aggressive in making their audiences confront their own biases, yes, but Schimberg goes always further, confronting his own biases in return and seeing hos we all mirror one another. He emphatically thrusts us into the shoes of his disabled characters (whether we’re disabled or not) and makes us do that alongside him. It’s thrilling stuff.
You see Edward wants to be an actor, disfigurement be damned. But the only role he’s been able to get to date is that of “sad disfigured guy in an office” for a workplace training video on how normies should behave around disfigured people. Still he’s slyly proud of his work, and so he shows it off to his new neighbor Ingrid when she comes barging into his life, feeling guilty about her initial reaction to Edward’s face. Overcompensating by ten thousand percent she quickly establishes herself as a fixture there, flirting with him shamelessly right up to nine toes on the precipice… only to then run off to go on dates with a string of beautiful men that Edward spies on through his door’s peephole. And as to her own motives it should definitely be noted that Ingrid is a playwright, and Edward fascinates her on a storytelling level. Which will become important shortly.
But as this will-they-or-won’t-they drama plays out, Edward’s doctor offers him a dramatic science-fiction solution to his problems—they’re testing out a cure for his disorder, and how would he like to be their guinea pig? And before you can say “Winter Soldier” Edward’s skin is sloughing off in slimy pink handfuls, and that square-jawed handsome Hollywood devil Sebastian Stan is suddenly staring back at him in the mirror. Victory! Flowers and fame will surely come his way now, right? Right?
Of course none of it’s that simple. And the complexities that Schimberg threads through A Different Man turn boundless and ruthlessly inventive—as Katherine Helmond’s infamously stretchy plastic surgery addict in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil once said, these complications have complications.
Forced to fake his own death after his transformation, some time later (after establishing himself as a successful stud, of course) Edward accidentally stumbles upon the casting of Ingrid’s new play, which just so happens to be about her disfigured former neighbor. And so that’s how we end up with a handsome Hollywood actor who’d been wearing facial prosthetics being forced to wear a disfigured mask in order to fake his former disfigurement in order to portray his love interest’s twisted version of his own personal experiences. Follow that?
And that’s all before Adam Pearson (the genuinely disfigured star of Chained For Life and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin) shows up on the scene as another actor vying for the part. Named Oswald, he’s a whirlwind of confidence and self-serving insinuations, and he’s come to get the fame he so clearly deserves—after all he means genuine representation, not just some pretty boy wearing a mask. Even if that pretty boy is the real boy behind all of it. On the inside, anyway.
So yeah. It’s a lot. A Different Man is a high-wire marvel of hard questions hilariously siphoned through elliptical lunacy. It channels our great poets of cinematic anxiety, the Coens and Charlie Kaufmans, but it finds fresh gristle to gnaw upon by taking aim at our of-this-moment conversations about representation, about the constructions of self, and about the shaky quicksand of flesh that it’s all built upon. And Sebastian Stan has never been better—he makes his own prettiness into a comic prison, with something unnerving rattling underneath it; a rage and a futility that presses up from under that exquisite skin and face-plants with every step.