Man Without a Face [1993]

Making this movie represented a rather risky venture for Mel Gibson--it was his first effort at directing, and the role demanded that he deliberately obscure his sexy matinee-idol looks. Gibson seems to truly relish his Lon Chaney Jr.-esque turn as Justin McLeod, a reclusive former teacher with half his face and body badly scarred, and a dark, secret past. The folks in McLeod's postcard-pretty Maine town have dubbed him "Hamburger Head" and exchange malicious gossip about him. But one boy is needy enough to dare to penetrate the fortress McLeod has built against the outside world. Fatherless Chuck Norstadt (Nick Stahl) is so anxious to escape his dysfunctional family that he pesters McLeod into becoming his mentor. Their relationship for the most part avoids the sort of sticky sentimentality one might expect from Hollywood. Chuck is a real, credible kid, a petulant pain with a chip on his shoulder, and McLeod is no Mr. Chips. It's fun, and quite moving, to watch these two cranky misfits battle their way toward a friendship that will change both their lives. Margaret Whitton (Major League) gives an unaffected performance as Chuck's narcissistic mother. "I'm just not cut out for this mothering racket," she tells her rudderless children, as she flits from man to man. Gibson's own personal code of honor, we suspect, is very much in evidence in this movie's message: One must take responsibility for what one wants in life. --Laura Mirsky

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