There are a lot of ways A Different Man could go and a lot of things it could be. Aaron Schimberg’s uniquely uncomfortable, uncomfortably unique feature sometimes plays as a reverse-Frankenstein medical horror, a tragic life-imitates-art satire, and a spiraling relationship drama. To its ambitious and distinct credit, it attempts packaging them all into ominous-sounding harmony, as if Charlie Kauffman’s surrealist Escher concoctions became a Twilight Zone episode modeled after David Lynch’s Elephant Man or Beauty and the Beast. It’s a dark, hilarious, and deeply unsettling portrait of a disfigured man that’s also an unflinching mirror of a looks-focused industry. 

If this sounds like a meta contraption about representation and authenticity that’s too complicated to grasp, Schimberg eases you into the idea with a purposefully cliché setup for his facially disfigured protagonist. Rendered unrecognizable by the character’s neurofibromatosis (a condition in which bulging tumors grow on the face), Sebastian Stan walks through Manhattan’s slightly off-kilter lower east side with slumped shoulders and sorrowful disposition. His Edward is an aspiring actor who can sometimes feel like a sideshow attraction on the subway––a feeling Schimberg illuminates with recurring shots of passengers gawking and smiling on his commutes. In a world obsessed with identity and transformation, all Edward wants is to rip off his face and become the star he thinks he deserves to be. 

Edward doesn’t live in total squalor, but his apartment is beginning to fall apart––it’s cluttered and dirty, and a black leak has begun to form in the ceiling. Yet it’s not a big concern for Ingrid (Renate Reinsve), his new neighbor and playwright, who––though initially startled by Edward’s appearance––quickly takes an interest in his struggles to book gigs that aren’t just corporate training videos about proper ways to interact with disfigured colleagues. There’s something about him she finds inspiring, maybe even attractive. But Edward is convinced nothing about himself warrants lust. He eventually agrees to participate in an experimental drug trial meant to turn his face into… someone who looks like Sebastian Stan. “Perhaps the risk is worth the reward,” his doctor tells him.

The sci-fi-ish procedure goes well, but Schimberg doesn’t spend much time explaining how this facial reconstruction works. That’s for the better, and it’s not really the point. Over time, Edward starts pulling gooey, Cronenbergian threads of skin off his face that soon makes him unrecognizable. Without his old mug, he begins seeing the results: socializing at bars with celebratory Mets fans, getting intrigued looks from women. Stan plays everything like jolts of surprise, quickly realizing how much his perception allows him to engage with strangers sans questions or weird looks. In his new identity, he places his shoulders back, his posture lengthens, and still he can’t shake the skepticism of this new reality. In time, the newly renamed “Guy” moves into a new place, becomes a popular realtor, and decides to kill any memory of his old self. 

When Guy eventually discovers Ingrid is casting for an off-Broadway play written about him through her eyes, he auditions (unrecognized by her), nails the part, and they begin a relationship. It’s here where A Different Man starts collapsing in on itself. After finally achieving Hollywood looks, the irony is that Guy must revert to playing his disfigured self, which he later attempts by wearing a mask of his old face. (Reinsve reverts to playing another terrible, narcissistic person, building an exploitative story about someone she barely knew.) But halfway through rehearsals, a similarly disfigured man named Oswald (Adam Pearson, one of Schimberg’s frequent collaborators) interrupts the production, captures Ingrid’s attention with a strong impression, and eventually steals Guy’s role in the play––soon, Ingrid herself. 

At A Different Man‘s premiere, Schimberg said the idea came from a simple place––mainly in wanting to manifest a Hollywood debate about representation. Effectively, he aimed to cast a star (especially one with Stan’s face) as well as a person with neurofibromatosis and have them “battle it out.” Schimberg similarly tackled the subject with his last movie Chained for Life, which also featured Pearson as a disfigured man trying to connect with his co-star. Here, Guy can’t stand Oswald, mostly because he seems capable of everything Guy wasn’t as a disfigured man. Despite his looks, Oswald is the life of every party, has a history with numerous attractive women, and sneaks his way into everyone’s affairs. As Guy spirals further out of Ingrid’s orbit, he can’t help but feel trapped in a game of his own making. 

A Different Man is a loaded story––filled with plenty of passed detours and dark alleys––and it can start to feel a bit punishing by the end, where Schimberg struggles finding a natural resolution. But maybe that’s the point. This movie feels itchy because these are messy, undefined, unresolved topics. Who gets to tell stories? Does representation matter if it’s not done authentically? Schimberg invites these questions by building out a fascinating, puzzling environment of morbid and absurdist ideas, perhaps best characterized by a confrontation taking place outside Edward’s window early in the movie. As paramedics load a recently deceased body into an ambulance, a dinging ice-cream truck tries to squeeze its way past, prompting arguing and honking. Everything feels like a sick joke. 

A Different Man premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and will be released by A24.

Grade: A-

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