The Faceless Man is a confusing mess. The first 10 minutes feel like a high school theater production of an angst-filled father/daughter melodrama that takes place in the middle of a crowded cancer ward. It’s badly acted, badly written, and almost bad enough to make you stop watching altogether.
But please don’t. When the action picks back up three years later, with cancer survivor Emily (Sophie Thurling) at a backyard party on the eve of the start of a vacation with friends to a cabin in the woods, it’s a completely different movie. And a much better one, too.
While it’s a simple enough way to introduce the five main characters, the party scene is also important because it introduces a sixth character that will play a critical role in anything you see happen on the screen: Drugs. Whether they are voluntarily taking some designer drug called Joy Boys or unknowingly guzzling it in spiked drinks, everyone on the call list for The Faceless Man seems to be either high as a kite or suffering from a massive crash from the drugs wearing off. It’s actually not an integral or active part of the plot at least as far as the Joy Boy and its effect — immediate and cumulative — are concerned or explained. It’s barely mentioned at all, even as the visuals in the movie become more insane and the group’s actions more unhinged. And while that certainly gives writer/director James Di Martino a vast canvas to tell his story on, especially in terms of his visual style, it can also alienate an audience who want their moves to make sense, too. Or at least more sense than The Faceless Man does.
Thankfully, Di Martino doesn’t seem too worried about that section of his audience. He’s having too much fun filling every inch of that big cinematic canvas with layers of cool characters doing weird things. On their way to their vacation home, for example, the friends stop at a remote diner for some lunch. One of them (Daniel Faciolo) gets into a heated argument with the waitress about not wanting to drink coffee. That’s when the town’s local problem-solver, the ginormous Barry (Daniel Reader) gets involved. Things don’t end well for the tourists, or at least we assume they don’t because Di Martino keeps us guessing about what happened before they ran out of the diner. From that point on, though, Barry and the other locals — “good people from a good town” — battle the outsiders in a range of violent and twisted ways.
For added inspiration to his madness, Di Martino also adds a suitcase of cocaine (more drugs!) that the quintet unknowingly (or knowingly) brought with them to keep an eye on for the dealer who gave them all the Joy Boys at the party. Why they have it is irrelevant, though, since it wasn’t the dealer’s to give to them in the first place and now the original owner, Viktor (Albert Goikhman) wants it back. And he and his henchmen are more than willing to butcher everyone — including the locals — that stand in his way.
All that makes it sound like you need a scorecard to tell who’s who in The Faceless Man, but don’t worry because all of the characters are well defined and well-acted. Just don’t become too attached to any particular one because along with filling the movie with lots of cool characters, Di Martino has no qualms about killing any of them suddenly and, usually, shockingly and brutally.
And if you are wondering about reading this far about a film called The Faceless Man without any mention of who, or what, the Faceless Man is, all we can say that there is such a character in the movie that pops up now and then as if to remind you what the title is, but not much else is revealed. He may be a figment of Emily’s imagination or maybe he is the demonic representation of her father, conjured forth by the alleged emotional intensity of that first forgettable scene. Like the thick black bile that Emily disgustingly coughs up now and then in the movie, it’s never explained.
And in the end, it doesn’t matter. The Faceless Man is a hell of a ride as long as you don’t try too hard to put all the pieces together to make a complete picture. It’s questionable if Di Martino cares either. The after credit coda proves that pretty effectively, but go that far if not understanding everything about The Faceless Man is killing the buzz you get from just watching it. Having the director cheekily admit that he’s been having a bit of fun at your expense for the past 100 minutes almost ruins the movie.
- John Black, The Faceless Man