A Different Man provokes thought but lacks the proper execution: Sydney Film Festival Review

The idea of wearing a mask – physical or metaphorical – can so often be used to uncover a psyche within the realms of dark storytelling, and for Aaron Schimberg‘s chaotic A Different Man a literal representation is at the core.  There’s an undeniably captivating and thought-provoking narrative at play, but the execution feels ultimately muddled, with the film unsure if it wants to commit to a dramatic or blackly comic temperament.

The titular man of difference is Edward (Sebastian Stan), a disfigured gent who lives quite a sad existence, oft stared at for his grotesque appearance.  His apartment is a reflection of his seeming self-worth, with a disarrayed set-up and a ceiling that’s slowly rotting from black mould.  He clearly wants to be noticed beyond his appearance, but has seemingly resigned himself to the fact that he won’t ever be more than just mocked for attention.

He finds a quick connection with his new neighbour though, Ingrid (Renate Reinsve, who after The Worst Person in the World should truly be being seen in everything), and an unlikely friendship blossoms.  She doesn’t hold value in Edward’s looks the way the majority of society does, so it would seem the procedure that he has begun treatment for prior to meeting her that is designed to alter his features and quite literally create a new face has come at the worst time.

The procedure proves successful – Schimberg indulges in a few Cronenberg-esque body horror moments across the face “shedding” – and Edward rebrands himself as Guy, seemingly able to manoeuvre a successful career off his winning mug alone; Stan now seen in his usual handsome form.  The irony hits hard though when “Guy” realises that the grass isn’t that much greener on the other side and his life is one of dishonesty, as he’s had to replace any personality he formed as Edward.

The real kicker to his existence though is when Ingrid, believing Edward actually passed away, writes a play inspired by their brief friendship, and “Guy”, not being disfigured and masquerading as a real estate agent, is questioned as to why he should play the character when he goes to audition; as Edward he was an aspiring actor who more often than not would land gigs that glamourised his disfigurement.  His pain and frustration at resenting the appearance he thought would right all his life’s wrongs comes to a head when he meets Oswald (Adam Pearson, a British actor who has neurofibromatosis) who, like Edward was, is facially disfigured, only he refused to let that dictate his actions, so he swans about the film with a trail of stories, friends and romances, unintentionally mocking Edward’s mentality as to how he assumed his life should be lived.

For the majority of the film’s 112 minute running time, it moves at a deliberate pace, indulging in the darker themes and humour that come from the story’s natural oddity.  Whilst some viewers may feel their patience tested with this slow burn approach, there’s the initial feeling that both Edward and Guy’s relationship with Ingrid will prove the film’s most emotionally resonate.  Unfortunately, Edward’s deterioration is never given the focus it deserves, with the barrelling of Oswald, whose personality may similarly irk, overtaking the latter half of the film, contributing to it coming somewhat undone.

A Different Man‘s final third seems to want to race to its finish line, but it does so in a messy fashion that serves as an injustice to the genuinely great work from Stan, who creates fully rounded characters out of both Edward and Guy.  Where Schimberg’s script travels is admittedly unexpected, but Edward ends up possessing a multitude of personality shifts and narratives that don’t feel realised.  Similarly, there’s a more melodramatic, comedically absurd tone adopted in the latter half of the film that, whilst amusing at times, doesn’t gel with the darker personality Schimberg seemed to take so long to form.

There’s plenty of thought to be provoked here, but with A Different Man unable to quite polish its narrative, Schimberg’s idea comes off less profound than it deserves.


A Different Man is screening as part of this year’s Sydney Film Festival, running between June 5th and 16th, 2024.  For more information head to the official SFF page.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.