Faceless (2021)

Faceless had its European première at Grimmfest 2021

George (Cullen Mosk) sits waiting in a parked car, the engine idling. Ignoring a call from his mother, he counts out a pile of dollar bills (adding one from his own pocket), and heads off to a dogfight where he gambles and loses everything and, pursued by his criminal creditors Jumbo (Keith Brooks) and Twitch (Robert Forte Shannon III), is viciously mauled by their attack dog. George’s attendance at an illegal canine competition immediately evokes director/co-writer Marcel Sarmiento‘s earlier entry in The ABCs of Death (2012), D is for Dogfight. Yet it is the opening image of George, his face visible only in the circle of his vehicle’s side mirror while the rest of him is seen from behind, that prefigures in Sarmiento’s latest feature Faceless the ease with which a person’s countenance can be isolated from the body.

After woozy, impressionistic scenes of a face transplant, George wakes, deeply disoriented, in the Klein Institute, which specialises In reconstructive surgery. He has amnesia from his trauma, and is hallucinating from the cocktail of drugs that form part of his post-operative recovery. Worst of all, though. he no longer recognises himself in the mirror, seeing only a circle of scars around a face that is – or at least was – not his own. As George (now played by Brendan Sexton III) struggles to work out who he once was, and whose face he now bears, he also finds himself being stalked by both Jumbo and Twitch looking to collect the debts of his forgotten past, and by a man in a mask – and a hospital orderly in a hoodie – who seem somehow connected to George’s current face. Meanwhile Sophie (Alex Essoe), a mental health counsellor at the clinic, clearly recognises the new George from her own past, leading to a strange, conflicted relationship that is only skin deep.

Sarmiento’s ‘features feature’ falls into a long tradition of films that use face transplants and plastic surgery to explore that slippery space where appearance and identity stitch uneasily together. These include Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another (1966), John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966), John Grissmer’s Scalpel (1977), Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s Suture (1993), John Woo’s Face/Off (1997), Kim Ki-duk‘s Time (2006) and Pedro Almodóvar The Skin I Live In (2011) – although the granddaddy of them all is Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960), whose remake Faceless (1987), directed by Jess Franco, was the donor of Sarmiento’s title. This subgenre always comes with an element of body horror to complement its psychological and even existential anxieties – and Sarmiento, with his co-writers Ed Dougherty and Freddie Villacci, throws in a suspicious organisation – the Institute, whose head Dr Klein (Terry Serpico) recently died but lives on in the patient orientation videos that he has left behind – to add to the film’s Cronenbergian vibe. 

What emerges is a story of extreme alienation, as our compromised hero has little idea who he was, who he is, or what to do with the ‘second chance’ that his new appearance brings. Framed as a noirish conspiracy thriller, Faceless concerns enigmas of identity and impostor syndrome that we all at times face – if perhaps not quite like this. “Don’t hide from your demons,” Klein’s sinister colleague Dr Julius Metzger (Richard Haylor) advises his confused patient – but even as George’s new face gradually deteriorates, and he starts to look ever more monstrous, he loses track of which demons are really his, and which someone else’s. In the end though, Sarmiento’s film proves to be a bizarre romance, as love equally harms and heals all, leading to a grotesque climax that is part Beauty and the Beast, part Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and part Tony Randel’s Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988). While events are confined to the protagonist’s immediate, often addled point of view, half the fun here is reconstructing the other, different characters’ actions and motivations, and trying to graft onto the film’s narrative convolutions an acceptable, familiar face whose expressions can more easily be read.

strap: in Marcel Sarmiento’s ‘features feature’, an amnesiac man with a face transplant goes down a paranoid hole of identity and alienation

© Anton Bitel