I like to coordinate themes between Eye of Polyphemus with Apocalypse Cinema whenever possible, so when The X-Files episode “The Post-Modern Prometheus” came up over there, I knew I should review mask over here. The episode features a deformed young man who is obsessed with Cher because she loved a deformed child in Mask. If you are an X-Phile, please check out my thoughts on the episode. Here are my thoughts on Mask.
Mask gets high marks from me. It is a blatantly manipulative film in terms of tugging at your heartstrings, so much so that if the actors could not sell the material as well as they do, Mask would wind up no better than some sappy Lifetime movie of the week. But Cher, Eric Stoltz, and Sam Elliot are all wonderful. If Mask does not stick with you for days after watching it, you have no heart.
Stoltz plays Rocky Dennis, a teenager afflicted with the rare disease Craniodiaphyseal dysphasia, which causes the growth of calcium deposits in the head and face. We are informed right off the bat the growths are putting pressure on his brain, so Rocky is not expected to reach adulthood. All right, he is definitely not going to survive the film. See what I mean by emotionally manipulative? Rocky has a close knit support network, including his free-spirited, though drug addicted mother, her biker friends, and his best buddy with whom he plans a motorcycle tour of Europe after high school graduation.
Rocky is nothing but virtuous. He is smart, kind-hearted, and patient with a sardonic, but still gentle sense of humor that wins people over when they give him a chance. The problem is most do not. Rocky is met with fear and pity. The only new relationships he makes during the film are with those who want to pick his brain for their schoolwork and blind kids who cannot see his physical appearance. More manipulation, that. Rocky is nigh perfect; everyone else is so shallow, they cannot get passed his face to value anything else.
There is a lot of truth to that. We live in a beauty obsessed culture. Someone like Rocky would likely hide himself away from most people, particularly if he indulged the inevitability of his short life expectancy. It would be easy to fall into the mindset of thinking it is not worth suffering through what is, unfortunately, the natural reaction of people to things we do not find aesthetically pleasing in spite of whatever virtues it may have. Call it one of the inherent cruelties of life.
What elevates Mask beyond a preachy film about a completely without other fault deformed kid abused by the bigoted masses is the realistic way his small circle of associates handle circumstances. Though depressed and drug addicted, Rocky’s mother goes the distance to see to his physical and emotional well-being. At one point, rocky is depressed because he sees his classmates having fun in romantic relationships, so she finds him a pretty hooker. He does not indulge, but the act demonstrates his mother does her best to see to his normalcy, even though her flawed nature often makes her go about it all wrong.
As the film progresses, so does the gulf between Rocky and the people around him. He feels the need to get away from his mother as she becomes more overwhelmed by her demons. He is motivated by tough love. Rocky becomes the most popular member at the camp by helping all the kids who cannot see his appearance. He falls for a girl, Diana, played by Laura Dern. Diana, of course, can appreciate Rocky’s inner beauty because she cannot see his outer ugliness. His mother considers rehab, but his best friend moves away, ending their plans for a trip to Europe and Diana’s father forbids him to see her. Just when things look the bleakest for rocky, he dies in his sleep.
You can see most all this coming from the very beginning, but it still sucker punches you in the gut as you watch it unfold. Fate can be very cruel when one is born, and life is not any more merciful as it goes along. It is nice to see a film in which a character struggles against the poor hand life dealt him, without much hope of better things to come, because of the flawed, but genuine support of a small circle of those who love him unconditionally. Mask is, ironically enough, a lovely movie about ugly things. I strongly recommend it.
Rating: **** (out of 5)