Mel Gibson’s directing debut reinforces his status as a genuinely fine actor, a fact often lost amid the explosions and car crashes in the “Lethal Weapon” and “Mad Max” trilogies. This simple, sappy film lacks those flashy trappings but compensates with ample heart, promising a solid mid-range box office earner on the order of Gibson’s last foray into such sentimental territory, “Forever Young.”
Flanked by a fine performance from newcomer Nick Stahl, Gibson’s well-calculated production tills the same ground as “Dead Poets Society” without overly exploiting its gimmick — namely, that Gibson’s character goes through the movie in heavy makeup, the result of a mysterious accident that left him seriously deformed.
The action begins with a “Cinderella”-type setup: 12-year-old Chuck (Stahl) lives in a Maine coastal village with his uninterested, often-married mother (Margaret Whitton) and two difficult half-sisters.
Having romanticized the image of his late father, an Army pilot, Chuck dreams of getting into Dad’s old military academy but has already failed the entrance exam. Needing a tutor, he enlists the aid of Mr. McLeod (Gibson), a gruff, mysterious recluse — known as “the freak” among the small-minded locals — whose teaching career was ended by the accident that scarred him and took the life of one of his students.
Malcolm MacRury’s script comes off a bit sitcom-ish in the early going, with a precocious younger sister (Gaby Hoffmann) and contrived strokes in establishing the central relationship.
Still, the words become more compelling as the action moves along, with Chuck finding a mentor and father figure while McLeod rekindles his contact with the outside world — a place where the teacher-student bond prompts suspicions of molestation, jeopardizing the relationship.
Gibson’s direction meanders in places but for the most part is clear and unaffected. In addition to the charm of the two main characters, the movie manages to glorify education without being heavy-handed and provides a wry take on the more “groovy” aspects of the late 1960s, when the action takes place.
Greg Cannom’s convincing makeup proves surprisingly unobtrusive as the story wears on, a point made explicitly by Chuck in case the audience misses the lesson. In fact, with his face marred, what really shines through is Gibson’s resonant voice, though ardent fans may feel the unsullied half of his head would be enough for them.
Other technical aspects exhibit considerable care, from Dennis McAlpine’s languid shots of the idyllic coastal town to the period costumes and interchangeable strains of the ubiquitous James Horner’s latest uplifting score.
With “Hamlet” and other recent roles, Gibson appears to be well on his way toward emulating Sean Connery, establishing an appeal not totally reliant on his action hunk status. “The Man Without a Face” continues that push for Gibson the actor, and even with its corny trappings, Gibson the director has no cause to hide his face, either.