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Sundance 2024: A Different Man, Realm of Satan

On a stage with red sequins at the back, a man in a surgical mask is gesturing in front of a man who is has a disfigured face.Adam Pearson and Aaron Schimber on the set of A Different Man (Photo by Matt Infante, courtesy of A24 Films)

There’s a story about a Soviet commissar who, upon seeing Solaris, proved that he both completely understood the movie and didn’t understand it at all by indignantly demanding to know what the point is of humanity going from one end of the universe to the other if they bring all their emotional shit with them. That’s not far from the moral of Aaron Schimberg’s third feature A Different Man, the story of a man who gets radical plastic surgery only to find out he still has to live with himself. Containing elements of Seconds (plastic surgery with unintended consequences) and The Tenant (the terrors of isolated apartment living), A Different Man stars Sebastian Stan — in the film’s first half masked underneath astonishing makeup designed by Michael Marino — as actor Edward. Edward has neurofibromatosis, a condition manifested as facial deformation, meaning he can really only play characters with that affliction—precisely the limitation Edward encounters as a working thespian, introduced on-set for what’s later revealed to be a workplace training video on how to interact with people like him.

“Sad as it is, it comes as no surprise” that pretty people do better in the workplace, the tutorial’s narrator chirpily announces, and it’s this unkindly articulated truth that torments Edward. Repeatedly described as a “nervous nellie,” Edward lives alone in an apartment with a hole in the ceiling that grows bigger, blacker and more mole-like in its appearance by the day, mirroring his physically-caused and ever-growing self-loathing. He gazes haplessly around him at heterosexual couples and pines for his playwright neighbor Ingrid (Renate Reinsve) until finally signing up for experimental surgery. After an initial unnerving period of his face peeling off in bloody strips, Edward emerges looking like, well, Sebastian Stan, but now finds himself in competition with another actor, the buoyant Oswald, played by Adam Pearson, who himself has neurofibromatosis.

Up to this point, A Different Man has empathized with its protagonist by taking on the form of a psychological horror film in which the world’s everyday tormenting of Edward is externalized through sudden loud noises and especially Umberto Smerilli’s exemplary score, in which stretches of smoothly arranged jazz, complete with sax solos, are nervewrackingly punctuated by sudden rising bursts of feedback. When Edward changes form, the film does too, becoming a sort of nervy comedy. Now ruggedly handsome, Edward immediately picks up work as a high-powered real estate agent and moves from his ratty apartment into a luxe-y Manhattan residence with an excellent cityscape view. Conventionally sexually viable, he re-enters Ingrid’s life under a new identity, only to find that his physical transformation has left him exactly the same person internally. The problem both was his appearance, which objectively changed how people responded to him, and wasn’t that at all—it’s now all the skittishness and self-pity from the resulting and now firmly internalized trauma that he can’t slough off.

Complicated in its plot mechanics and simple in its emotional dilemma, A Different Man unfolds with a refreshing degree of staging confidence, executing many scenes in unshowy single shots whose attentive blocking disguises itself. Shot on 16mm by DP Wyatt Garfield (a grainy look which contrasts effectively with the nasty digital sheen of that workplace training video), this is a double-feature of dissatisfaction in two different, equally effective registers. As with Schimberg’s previous Chained for Life (which also co-starred Pearson), it’s supplementally a meta-comedy about its own meaning, beating thinkpiece writers to the punch with discussion of the ethics of casting deformed people to play themselves and whether that’s automatically exploitative. (The jokes include a tiny settling of scores. Towards the end, a poster for a play boasts a notably idiotic pullquote—“I’m still thinking about it two days later”—attributed to The Hollywood Reporter’s John DeFore, who gave a negative review to Schimberg’s debut, Go Down Death.) It is, by some measure, the most confidently cohesive film I’ve seen here, one I repeatedly heard described as “a real movie” and which absolutely justified that description.

A decade after 2014’s Buffalo Juggalos, Scott Cummings returns with another non-narrative portrait of self-selectingly marginalized outsiders with a thing for corpse-paint makeup. As in that fairly immaculate half-hour short, Realm of Satan plotlessly observes its milieu primarily through carefully composed, generally symmetrical tableaus, jumping into precisely controlled motion for effect on relatively rare occasions. And, like Juggalos, Satan is a largely wordless group portrait whose gaze is anthropological in its attention to ritual and non-condescending, presenting its subjects decidedly on their own terms—as an opening title reads, it’s made “in collaboration with the Church of Satan.”

That organization is nothing if not good at hyping itself while also making extremely clear that its members aren’t really about “devil worship” so much as they are about a Lifestyle; Cummings’s subjects accordingly have no trouble looking directly into the camera and presentationally going about their business. They’re depicted mostly within comfortable homes, in tiki bar basements full of shrunken head glasses or kitchens whose baby turquoise cabinets match their plateware’s color. These are, pointedly, average suburban Americans who seem to have an enviable amount of spare time. Some people use their leisure hours for alcoholism or binge-watching; Satanists choose magic tricks, dressing in full-body latex and voguing in the woods while wearing burning antlers. At select moments, Cummings amplifies their presentation with unexpected applications of CG, like a man revealed to have a goat’s lower half when he steps from behind his sun-kissed kitchen island. 

Like Juggalos, Satan isn’t so much predicated on the humor of incongruity (“look at that person wearing a goat’s head in a suburban basement!”) as it is committed to normalizing eccentrics. A working editor whose sense of framing and rhythm are welcome disruptions within Sundance/American independent norms, Cummings is someone from whom I’d like to see films more frequently than once a decade. This specific example I found a little flat, which is mostly a question of aesthetics: I am more interested in the grimy confrontationalism of stonefaced, gloweringly menacing Juggalos from one of America’s hard-knock capitals than I am the cheesy, cozily morbid trappings of comparatively well-off suburbanites. One of his subjects, a middle-aged woman, appears to levitate while reading The Compleat Witch in a room decorated with a custom poster for Showgirls and a smaller framed portrait of Elvis—a swath of self-selected American chintz that just doesn’t hit my pleasure centers. 

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the actor playing Edward in A Different Man’s first half; it is Sebastian Stan.

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