Edward (Sebastian Stan) expects you to look away. In fact, he’s counting on it — in many ways, it’s preferable to startled glances and outward expressions of disgust. Edward has neurofibromatosis, a condition that sees benign tumors growing beneath his skin, causing the tissue around his face to swell. He’s used to disgust; he’s even used to pity. That’s why his shoulders are perpetually turned inward, his eyes forever downcast. It’s why he struggles even to exchange a few words with his next-door neighbor, Ingrid (Renate Reinsve, The Worst Person in the World), despite her efforts to bring him out of his shell. And it’s why, when he’s offered the chance to participate in a “high risk, high reward” experimental procedure — one that will slough away the facial tumors to reveal the conventionally attractive face beneath — he doesn’t hesitate to volunteer.
With A Different Man, writer-director Aaron Schimberg is dealing with expectations of his own. He expects our undivided attention as he depicts the life of the Other — and because he’s cast Sebastian Stan in the lead role, unrecognizable under layers of prosthetics, he gets it. It’s a choice that’s been labeled as a casting faux pas elsewhere: why tap an actor like Stan to play a man with a facial disfigurement? But Schimberg, who’s dedicated the bulk of his work to exploring that very topic, expects us to ask that question too.
It’s important to note that Edward is an aspiring actor. Before his life-changing surgery, opportunities are scarce — but he continues to make the trek across an off-beat New York City to audition for whatever roles are available to him. He’s just landed a gig in an office PSA that essentially teaches its audience to treat their disabled co-workers like human beings. It’s eerie, darkly funny stuff, and it’s just one of the tonal touches that gives this weird, alternate reality its juice.
When Edward grabs an impromptu dinner with Ingrid, sitting uncomfortably in a booth overlooking the street, Schimberg frames their conversation in one long, languid take. Passersby turn to gawk and grimace, and while one stranger stops to wave, it’s framed much less as an acknowledgement and more as the most awkward thing you’ve ever seen. Paired with fuzzy, film-like cinematography and a morose, jazzy score by Umberto Smerilli, Schimberg’s New York feels equally inspired by Charlie Kaufman and David Cronenberg.
This is Edward’s reality, if he’s not outright ignored or rejected. His tentative friendship with Ingrid is the one bright spot in an otherwise unbearable existence. He’s sure that she sees him like no one else does: an aspiring playwright, Ingrid promises to write him a role in her first production. It’s hard to tell if Ingrid’s intentions are genuine, and whether it’s the product of a deep-seated savior complex. Edward doesn’t get the chance to find out before his procedure completely transforms him. He quickly gains a newfound sense of confidence, but that development curdles from the moment he chooses to fake his own death.
Henceforth known as Guy, our hero completely absconds his old life, and his old dreams. He doesn’t even think about acting anymore. That is, until he learns that Ingrid finally finished her play... and she literally based the lead character on Edward.
Naturally, Ingrid doesn’t recognize the real Edward standing right in front of her, even when he dons a mask of his former face to audition for her off-Broadway production. It seems she’s not the girl-next-door that Edward imagined her to be: she calls the title character her “creation,” despite ripping entire scenes from her personal conversations with the Edward.
Edward is willing to swallow the indignities — he puts on the mask whenever Ingrid asks him to, even mid-coitus — but his new façade begins to crack once a stranger with neurofibromatosis ingratiates himself into Ingrid’s production. Adam Pearson (Under the Skin) is a late addition to A Different Man, but an entirely necessary one. As Oswald, he represents everything that Edward could have been before his risky procedure: a man with confidence, despite his “condition.” A man who asks for what he wants, and eventually gets it.
As Oswald rises in Ingrid’s esteem, Edward shrinks back, descending into a madness that becomes more tragic and more hilarious with each encounter. Stan is doing some of his best work here; his quiet desperation is a perfect fit for Pearson’s affable, unshakeable ease. One performance compliments the other, and together with Reinsve — whose Ingrid might actually be the worst person in the world — cut to the heart of Schimberg’s big statement.
Through this odd trio, A Different Man skewers our ideas of pity, repulsion, desire and identity. Whether the artistic process is inherently exploitative, and whether able-bodied actors should be cast in disabled roles, are just a few of the thorny topics buried in this black comedy. For most of its nearly two-hour runtime, it succeeds in unpacking them all. Edward’s descent into madness is inevitable, however, and it comes dangerously close to derailing what began as a restrained satire and compelling character study.
In the end, it’s the obsessive artistry in each of the film’s three leads that makes the biggest impact. But A Different Man remains an unpredictable, improbable story in its own right. That Schimberg’s ideas have been given a platform of this scale, with A24 as the producers and an A-lister like Stan as the vessel, is a gift unto itself. That audiences will be giving this film their undivided attention makes all his efforts worth it — and Schimberg doesn’t waste a moment of our time.