In 1968, Justin McLeod has been living an isolated existence as a reclusive painter for the past seven years, following a car accident which left him disfigured on the right side of his face and chest by burns sustained in a post-crash fire.
Young Chuck Nordstadt endures a dysfunctional relationship with his sister and their widowed mother. One day, Chuck meets McLeod on a ferry; Chuck is both intrigued and slightly scared of him. Chuck needs a tutor to help him pass a military academy's entrance exam. Eventually, Chuck persuades McLeod to become his teacher; although he is initially baffled by McLeod's unorthodox methods, the two develop a close friendship.
Chuck keeps his daily meetings with McLeod a secret, to avoid being scorned for associating with a disfigured man whose past is shrouded in mystery. No one knows much about McLeod, and few people have ever made an effort to know him; this has made McLeod the object of gossip, speculation, and suspicion.
Ultimately, Widow Nordstadt learns that her son has been visiting McLeod. She and the rest of the town convince themselves that McLeod is molesting Chuck, despite Chuck's adamant denials. Chuck researches McLeod's car accident, which involved the death of another boy, hence McLeod's fear of another attachment. Chuck is forcibly taken to a psychiatrist, who Chuck accurately suspects is also biased against McLeod.
Chuck inevitably confronts McLeod to learn the truth of his disfigurement, and to discover the identity of that youth who was killed in the same car crash. As it turns out, the other boy was a student of McLeod's. Consequently, McLeod was unjustly branded a pedophile, was exiled from his hometown, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, and served three years in prison. Once his relationship with Chuck is openly known, McLeod is once again run out of town, and ordered by the authorities to have no contact with Chuck.
On his way out of town, McLeod leaves Chuck a note; it wishes him the best of luck in his academic goals, and reminds him to be tolerant with people who are different. In the film's finale, Chuck is shown graduating from the military academy as his sister and their mom look on proudly. Chuck sees a familiar figure in the background, and recognizes it as his "faceless" tutor.Mel Gibson as Justin McLeod
Nick Stahl as Charles E. 'Chuck' Norstadt
Robert DeDiemar Jr as Charles E. 'Chuck' Norstadt (grown up)
Margaret Whitton as Catherine Palin
Fay Masterson as Gloria Norstadt
Gaby Hoffmann as Megan Norstadt
Geoffrey Lewis as Chief Wayne Stark
Richard Masur as Prof. Carl Hartley
Michael DeLuise as Douglas Hall, Gloria's boyfriend
Ethan Phillips as Todd Lansing
George Martin as Sam the Barber
Jean De Baer as Mrs. Lansing
Jack De Mave as Mr. Cooper
Viva as Mrs. Cooper
Justin Kanew as Rob Lansing
The Man Without a Face was released on August 25, 1993, in 865 theatres. It ranked at #4 at the US box office, making $4.0 million in its opening weekend. In its second weekend, it opened in 1,065 theatres, grossed $5.4 million and ranked at #2. After five weeks in theatres, the film went on to gross $24.7 million.
On Rotten Tomatoes, The Man Without a Face holds a 67% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 24 reviews.
The film's treatment of sexuality between Justin McLeod and Chuck Norstadt differs from the book by Isabelle Holland. In the original novel, McLeod behaves in a way that could be interpreted as child grooming, taking Chuck swimming and being affectionate to him. Chuck, meanwhile, seems to be attracted to McLeod as more than just as a father figure. There is one scene where it is strongly implied that Chuck and McLeod have some kind of sexual experience in his bedroom. In the film, McLeod demonstrates no sexual interest in the boy at all, even though Chuck appears downstairs in his underwear when the police officer calls. Critics have noted that the book's criticism of homophobia had been obscured in the film version.
Gibson has expressed dislike for the book because of its implied sexual contact between McLeod and Chuck: "I read the script first and that's what I liked. The book is just – I'm sorry, but the guy did it. And you know, like, why? I just wanted to say something a lot more positive."
Around the time of the releases of Gibson's films The Patriot and The Passion of the Christ, an internet rumour falsely attributed to radio commentator Paul Harvey claimed this film was based on an actual incident that happened to Gibson as a young man. It proved to be false.