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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

A Different Man // Film Review

“We cannot control the fight or flight responses in our brains.” 

From the opening notes of its pulpy score to the Taxi Driver-esque squalor of its opening act, Aaron Schimberg’s A Difficult Man preys on the assumptions and judgements of its audience to viciously devious effect. 

Former Marvel hottie Sebastian Stan plays Edward, a man whose facial disfigurement causes him to live in self-imposed exile. From staring pedestrians on subway rides to the gasps of horror he receives upon meeting new people, the film locks us into Edward’s perspective as his every encounter is bogged down by unbearable anxiety. Consequently, his day-to-day existence is that of a socially awkward hermit with few hobbies or friends, but plenty of pity from his neighbours, colleagues and even the local cat. 

All this changes when an experimental new procedure (complete with bleeping lasers and massive, whirring sci-fi machines) allows him to literally shed his old skin and emerge as, well, Sebastian Stan. The reborn Edward hastily decides to fake his own death and build a new persona for himself, one which lands somewhere between Patrick Bateman and Jordan Belfort, though without the social smarts of either. It seems to be a happy, if cute ending, at least until Edward discovers an Off-Broadway production of his own life, which brings him into contact with the eternally friendly, likeable and successful Oswald (Adam Pearson), who happens to share Edward’s old affliction.

A Different Man strikes a complex, often contradictory balance. On the one hand, Edward’s disfigurement is treated as spectacle (particularly in a garish ‘skin-peeling’ scene early in the film), while Schimberg and Pearson take care to ensure that Oswald’s becomes almost invisible. With this mirror character’s arrival at the film’s midpoint, Edward’s story shifts from body horror into comedy, complete with slasher-like set-pieces and an unhinged slapstick finale. The point is obvious: Edward only lived like a “beast” because he thought he was one, whereas Oswald can thrive based on his mentality alone. We are scolded for our assumption that Edward was condemned for his appearance, despite it being one that the film initially encouraged us to make. 

Schimberg peppers his film with evocative imagery to better hit this point. One great example is a recurring leak in Edward’s roof which he avoids getting fixed even when it becomes a genuine safety hazard. That said, the film’s ultimate judgement of Edward still feels too extreme; even if his struggles were largely mental, they did clearly impact him as they did us as an audience. Hindsight is everything, but as the film continuously twists and pivots to reflect our prejudices back against us, there is a rising sense that Edward himself is being treated too harshly, especially in the cataclysmic, albeit outrageous third act. The film’s final line, while devilishly clever, is just plain cruel.


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