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Starring: Sebastian Stan, Renate Reinsve, Adam Pearson

Director(s): Aaron Schimberg


Writer-director Aaron Schimberg’s latest film is a surreal, singular tale of one man’s desire to self-actualize. Sebastian Stan is Edward, a man overcome by the reality of his appearance, intent on curing his alienation and transcending his self- and socially enforced artistic potential. Adam Pearson and Renate Reinsve carefully embody foils to Edward’s ambition, an artistic and philosophical juxtaposition of his, and our, conceits.

Through a haunting score, Lynchian approach to story, and folkloric magical realism, a unique psychological thriller emerges. A stylish vision of the theatrical currents of New York stages a universe where reality and fiction blend in beautiful ways; where lies, expectations, and internal turmoil weave a man’s consequentially incipient senses of truth and becoming. A Different Man is a reflexive allegory for the modern tortured artist, a subversive, gothic fairytale that deftly begets obsession.

Written By Darren Zakus

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

A Different Man has exceptional performances from Sebastian Stan, Renate Reinsve and Adam Pearson in the lead roles, but Aaron Schimberg’s writing struggles not only to justify the film’s almost two hour runtime, but to a find a consistent tone or message that will make this film either one that audiences will love or simply tolerate.

A24 is known for the ambitious stories many of their films have told, allowing independent filmmakers to bring to life their visions without studio interference. Sometimes it is to monumental success, like with Everything Everywhere All At Once, or sometimes creating films that the vast majority of audiences will instantly forget. Falling somewhere in the middle of these two extremes is the latest directorial effort from Aaron Schimberg that sees him reuniting with Adam Pearson to tell the story of Edward, a young man with a deformed face and his internal struggle to feel accepted in society. The film starts off strong with a compelling character study lead by a truly transformative performance by Sebastian Stan under impressive prosthetic work, but when the story begins making moves to further Edward’s story into purposefully uncomfortable situations, the character study and the dark message Schimberg wants to leave the audience with begin to crumble under its own weight. It succumbs to the inherent weirdness of the story, which some viewers will love as it is done so in true A24 fashion, but it makes the overall experience a difficult one to appreciate as a whole despite brilliant individual elements of this film.

Without question, the highlight of the film are the lead performances of Stan, Renate Reinsve and Pearson who carry the entire film on their shoulders. Stan gives the best performance of his career to date as Edward, a man with a medical condition that causes his face to appear deformed. There is a tenderness and sweetness that Stan brings to Edward under the incredible prosthetic and makeup work to create Edward’s face, that instantly makes your heart break and weep for his character. It's a vastly different role from anything Stan has done before, but one that allows him to show sides of himself as an actor that he has not been able to tap into before now. As the story progresses and Edward’s face is fixed, the character morphs into a different man, allowing Stan to bring a cockiness and confidence that loses the sweetness of Edward. Stan plays this middle section of his character arc perfectly, helping to bring to life Schimberg’s story and the haunting message about appearance and personality at the heart of it, only to have everything fall apart for his character by the final act which once again gives Stan different boundaries to play with. It’s no fault of Stan’s who valiantly takes the audience on this journey with Edward that is the centrepiece of this truly strange film. Reinsve is a delight as Ingrid, Edward’s playwright neighbour who develops sincere feelings for Edward, but it is how she consistently evolves these feelings that gives Renate the depth to her performance as she transforms her character into an individual who may not like by the end of the film. Her chemistry with both Stan and Pearson is endearing, while she brings a darker undertone to both relationships after we begin to get a better insight into her as a character, continuing to prove why she is a highly sought after actress after her performance in The Worst Person in the World.

Though, from the second that Pearson appears on the screen as Oswald, he consistently steals the entire film! Oswald is a true bright light in this dark and weird film, overflowing with charisma and an infectious positive energy that Pearson embodies in his performance. With a pep in his step, Pearson livens up the film with his presence, delivering a hilarious and smart performance alongside Stan and Renate, easily outperforming these two talented actors. Much like every character in the film aside from Edward, it is impossible for viewers to not gravitate towards Oswald and instantly adore him thanks to the pitch perfect performance from Pearson, creating this dark mirror for Edward to reflect upon. The differences in the tones between Stan and Pearson’s performances allows both the audience to fully grasp Edward’s self reflection upon what his life could have been if he had made different choices and learned to fully accept his condition rather than hide from it, like how Oswald lives his life, which helps to bring the underlying message of Schimberg’s story to the forefront.

Equally as impressive as the lead performances of the film is Umberto Smerilli’s bombastic musical score. Smerilli’s music deafens through the overpowering sound design of the film to great effect. By unleashing his symphonic compositions at full volume, Smerilli helps to audibly convey Edward’s internal feelings of fear of rejection, loneliness and longing for acceptance as if they were a horror story. Played at the most opportune moments during the film, the music defines the audience's experience with the story and helps bring to life the unique and unsettling story that Schimberg aims to tell with this film.

Where the film deteriorates for myself, and other critics who saw the film at its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, is the film’s screenplay and tone. There are three distinctive acts to this story, with each one having a different tone and feeling to it. The film’s first act plays out as a sweet romantic comedy at times as Edward goes about his life and begins to develop a bond with his neighbour Ingrid. But after completing the successful treatment to correct his face, the story, much like Edward has an identity crisis as it tries to grasp onto the romantic comedy moments as Edward tries to rekindle his relationship with Ingrid under a new identity, while the appearance of Oswald starts the film down a psychological horror path as Edward truly struggles to maintain his own identity. And by the third act, we have entered that bizarre world that many A24 films love to live in which has some shocking and uncomfortable moments that are no doubt entertaining in a cringe worthy way to watch. It’s cringe worthy in terms of the story as you are left searching for words at the actions of the characters, not Schimberg’s filmmaking in any regard as he proves himself a capable director. The story merely gets away from Schimberg as it becomes unclear whether Edward has snapped, or if this is a side effect of the experimental medical treatment he underwent. While these questions could be posed to leave the audience thinking, Schimberg is more concerned with the shocking moments he is depicting on screen, which sadly undercuts the interesting character study he had begun in the film’s first two acts. At the same time, the film has some true pacing issues as elements of the story are stretched for far too long and others feel rushed and underdeveloped, notably the film’s ending, which begs the question of whether there was enough story to fill a two hour feature, or whether a more succinct thirty minute short film would have more effectively captured the themes that Schimberg wanted to explore.

Capturing that weird and unsettling tone that has defined so many of A24’s films and made them a powerhouse independent studio, A Different Man features great technicals that many attribute to the studio, as well as the unsettling tone and story that is certain to lose many viewers who are looking for a more conclusive ending to Edward’s story. With impressive work from both Sebastian Stan and Renate Reinsve before Adam Pearson runs away with the film with a truly sensational performance that ranks among one of the best of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, A Different Man struggles narratively with its ever changing tone and muddled ending that prevents Aaron Schimberg’s latest film a mixed experience that misses the mark on becoming the compelling character study it could have been.

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