Who'd ever dream of casting dishy Mel Gibson as a disfigured recluse and reputed pornographer who fiddles about with little boys? Gibson, that's who. But don't assume man-boy love and possible career suicide. The Man Without a Face, in which Gibson makes a promising debut as a director, is an old-fashioned tear-jerker with its heart in the conventionally right place. Nothing happens that would damage the Gibson machismo, diminish the box-office take or frighten your sweet Aunt Fanny. Though absorbing and touchingly earnest, this star vehicle — The Elephant Man Crushes the Dead Poets Society — is a few quarts low on daring.
Set in the '60s, the film stars Gibson as Justin McLeod, a former master at a school for boys who barely survived a car accident that killed the infatuated student traveling with him. Ugly burns from head to toe scar the right side of McLeod's body. For seven years he has hidden away in a cliffside retreat off the coast of Maine with only a dog and a horse for company. Cinematographer Donald M. McAlpine (Patriot Games) makes the craggy heights look ideal for wuthering. McLeod breaks his solitude only to buy food. He shops at night to avoid freaking out the locals and summer tourists, who respond with scandalous whispers about his being a pederast or a murderer or the not-dead JFK.
It's no wonder 12-year-old Chuck Norstadt, played by Nick Stahl, is scared of running into the man his pals call Pizza Face. But for Chuck, even McLeod is a relief from life at the summer cottage he shares with his mother, Catherine (Margaret Whitton), and his two half sisters, teen-age Gloria (Fay Masterson) and 10-year-old Meg (Gaby Hoffman). Each kid has a different father. Chuck's dad died mysteriously, and Chuck can't get the truth from his mom, who is too busy recruiting husband No. 5 (Richard Masur).
Gibson shows a surprisingly deft touch in directing the family scenes. Instead of making the women harpies — the way defensive Chuck sees them — he takes time to reveal what makes them vulnerable. Whitton (The Secret of My Success), a vastly under-rated actress, is especially poignant as the mother who can't break the pattern of letting her insecurities take precedence over her duty to the son she loves.
Gibson is that rare actor-director who doesn't make himself the whole show. In McLeod's scenes with Chuck, Gibson puts the emphasis on the boy, who is played with fierce yearning by Stahl. Chuck overcomes his fear of McLeod to ask for help as a tutor. He's desperate to go to the military school that his father attended. After failing his first entrance exam, he wangles a chance to take the test again. Without telling his mother, Chuck becomes McLeod's student in exchange for doing manual work.
After some initial sparring, the two become pals, sharing thoughts on books, art and music. By candlelight, McLeod teaches Chuck to read The Merchant of Venice aloud. Having played Hamlet in 1990, Gibson tries his luck at doing Shylock and Portia. He's not bad, though the object-lesson parallels between McLeod's plight and Shylock's "Does not a Jew bleed?" speech and Portia's "The quality of mercy is not strained" oration do not exactly "droppeth like a gentle rain."
Such heavy-handedness drags down the film. It's a shame, given the modest virtues of what has come before, including Gibson's romantically stoic performance. But the bombast in the script by Malcolm MacRury gets the upper hand. Suspicion turns to accusation when Chuck sleeps over at McLeod's, and the sheriff finds the boy in the morning, stripped to his skivvies. It's an explosive situation that the film defuses by removing any ambiguity about the sterling character of McLeod. For all the humor, passion and decency Gibson invests in the film, The Man Without a Face doesn't add up to much more than a pretty reminder not to judge a book by its cover.