Making his debut as a director, Mel Gibson has taken on a project that sounds all but drenched in nobility. The title character of The Man Without a Face is Justin McCloud (played by Gibson), a former professor who was badly burned in an accident and now has pinkish-gray scar tissue covering the right half of his body, including his face. On one side, he looks...well, like Mel Gibson: beautiful, chiseled, a Greek god. On the other side, it looks as if someone plastered him with chewed bubble gum.
Shunned by his fellows (in part because he shuns them), McCloud lives in a big, secluded farmhouse on the edge of a river in Cranesport, Maine, where the locals refer to him as ''hamburger head'' and ''the freak.'' Yet McCloud, whose only companion is a German shepherd, has poetry in his soul. He may look like a monster, but inside he loves all things refined: art, music, Shakespeare. Set in 1968, The Man Without a Face is about how this gruff but sensitive outcast becomes the tutor of a lonely boy, Chuck Norstadt (Nick Stahl), who is desperate to escape the chaos of life with his husband-hopping mother (Margaret Whitton) and his two bratty half sisters. The movie, in other words, merges the Elephant Man/Phantom of the Opera sensitive-freak genre with the To Sir With Love/Dead Poets Society inspirational-teacher genre. How noble can you get?
It's to Gibson's credit that he keeps the teary excess in check. Early on, we glimpse the damaged McCloud through Chuck's wonderstruck eyes. The boy is full of fear at this hooded stranger, yet his yearning for a father figure is palpable. And Gibson, eyes shining with wounded pride, evokes pity without wallowing in it. When McCloud divides his face in half with a small mirror, replicating his ''good'' side, the image has a touching ghostliness.
Yet the core of the movie should be Chuck's and the audience's discovery of what a magical teacher McCloud is. And here, strangely enough, The Man Without a Face falls down. Speaking in a low, grumbly monotone, Gibson struggles to make McCloud a fiercely charismatic guru, yet mostly he just sounds like a generic American tough guy spouting high-flown rhetoric. (Gibson has seemed more intellectually alive in routine commercial pictures like the Lethal Weapon series.) Unlike the best teacher-student movies, The Man Without a Face asserts the value of knowledge in a hollow, abstract way. It fails to draw us into the life lessons Chuck is supposed to be learning, and so the bond between him and McCloud, however touching on the surface, lacks deep roots. Gibson stages the movie episodically, as a series of quiet actors' moments; his direction is scrupulous, tasteful, and, I'm afraid, rather sodden. By the end, he wrings a tear or two, but more from the story's sentimental outline than from anything he does to fill it in. B-