Home » Sebastian Stan’s Mind-Blowing New Psychosexual Thriller

Sebastian Stan’s Mind-Blowing New Psychosexual Thriller

Reteaming with his Chained for Life star Adam Pearson, Aaron Schimberg delivers a deliriously inventive and deranged mind-fuck with A Different Man. A riff on John Frankenheimer’s Seconds that also synthesizes into its demented DNA trace elements of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Naked Lunch, Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Psycho, and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (not to mention Beauty and the Beast), the writer/director’s latest is an audacious and electric psychosexual thriller of identity. Featuring a career-best performance from Sebastian Stan, stellar work by Pearson and Renate Reinsve (The Worst Person in the World, Handling the Undead), and a formal daring that’s in service of a story that continually warps, twists, and curls inward on itself, it’s one of 2024’s undisputed early highlights as well as the most exciting premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Edward (Sebastian) is a loner with neurofibromatosis, a condition that’s severely disfigured his face with enormous tumors. A Different Man introduces him howling in distress in an office break room. As it turns out, this is an on-camera performance for a sensitivity training video, although Edward is in actual pain. Perpetually beset by looks of disgust, scorn and the sort of pitying horror that causes eyes to quickly dart away, Edward has retreated into himself, his body language slumped and shuffling, and his speech halting and downbeat. Edward lives in an apartment whose ceiling has a water leak, and the spreading mold and expanding hole (through which black liquid and dead rats fall) are perfect manifestations of his misery.

Quoting Lady Gaga (!), a fellow resident tells Edward that “all happiness in life comes from not accepting what is,” and Edward certainly loathes himself, longing for the opportunity to be an unassuming everyman who walks arm-in-arm with a woman in the moonlight. At a check-up, his doctor discloses that there’s an experimental trial (the first of its kind) for a potential “cure” for his condition, and with his usual air of glum resignation, Edward agrees to participate. After having his face scanned, from which these physicians create a replica mask of his deformed visage, they give him some drugs and begin monitoring his progress. Simultaneously, Edward’s life is thrown for a loop when beautiful aspiring playwright Ingrid (Reinsve) moves into the apartment next door and initiates an intimate friendship that just makes him pine that much harder for her, even though she already has a boyfriend and his gift of an antique typewriter sadly makes little impression.

Schimberg infuses these opening passages with weighty despair and dark romanticism courtesy of Umberto Smerilli’s haunting score and recurring musical theme, which lend the film a distinctly noir-ish ominousness. He additionally interjects regular moments of bizarre and unsettling humor, as when Edward and Ingrid’s dinner together at a casual restaurant is interrupted by a man who materializes at their window, waving crazily at Edward (for what reason, who knows?). A Different Man laces its action with off-kilter weirdness that speaks to its protagonist’s distorted headspace, and that further escalates when the trial’s drugs start working—first by rapidly healing a cut finger, and shortly thereafter by causing his tumors to fall off in great big clumps until he resembles the unblemished, handsome Stan. It’s a bewildering and exhilarating metamorphosis, and it prompts Edward to make a clean break from his current reality by faking his death and establishing a swanky and successful new life as a playboy celebrity realtor.

Edward’s reversal of fortune is merely the first dizzying development in A Different Man. On the street one day, Edward spots Ingrid and follows her to an off-Broadway theater where, he learns, she’s auditioning actors for her debut play, “Edward,” about their prior life together. Edward instinctively reads for and, once he dons his old-face mask, nabs the main part. Before long, he and Ingrid are in the relationship he always coveted. As is so often the case in film noir, however, fate punishes those who step outside themselves to be something they’re not, and Edward is next up on the universe’s figurative chopping block. Having achieved his dreams by leaving his neurofibromatosis self behind at the same time that he’s triumphantly re-inhabiting it on the stage, his bliss is quickly complicated by Ingrid’s feelings toward his old and new versions (highlighted by a sex scene in which she has Edward wear his mask, only to laugh in his faux-face). Then, it’s detonated by the out-of-the-blue appearance of Oswald (Pearson), an English stranger who looks like Edward once did but has the opposite personality, exuding outgoing confidence, friendliness and sex appeal that wows Ingrid and allows him to slowly replace Edward in every way.

A Different Man thus becomes a feverishly tangled tale of the internal and external, the real and the performative, the past and the present, and the sane and the insane. Mirrors upon mirrors, dreams upon nightmares, melancholy upon malice—the film is a kaleidoscopic funhouse with style to burn. Schimberg jolts with bumps in the night, unnerves with murder and mayhem, and draws one into his frame via prolonged serpentine takes that last for minutes on end and yet never call showy attention to themselves. Always in complete command of his material—especially when it’s on the verge of coming apart at the seams—the director takes a giant leap forward with this, his third feature, fashioning the proceedings as a frightening and fantastical “be careful what you wish for” cautionary tale.

A movie that’s about—and asks its lead to literally and figuratively wear—masks, A Different Man is a multifaceted meta mind-melter, and at its center is Stan. Tasked with playing wildly different sides of the same character, even as the boundaries between the two blur, blend, and go to war with each other, the headliner dexterously embodies Edward as a man caught in a physical and psychological web of his own making, and from which escape is impossible. Whether alone or opposite the excellently parasitic Reinsve and hilariously brash Pearson, Stan is a marvel, as gloomy and funny as he ultimately is scary. It’s a brilliant performance of mutation and madness, and one that seems destined to transform him from a capable character actor into a bona fide star.


January 2024