I'd have never watched this if it hadn't been by George Romero. It got a theatrical release in Canada in February 2000, but then spent the following year around the world going straight to DVD. The United States didn't get it until October 2001. Mind you, apparently the producers tried to promote it as a horror film, which is what Romero blames for its lack of success.
He's right, it's not a horror film. It's not bad, though. It doesn't feel like a gross injustice that it didn't get into too many cinemas, but that's because it's a small-scale, almost understated movie that was never meant to be big and commercial.
We begin with Jason Flemyng, to me best known for acting in Guy Ritchie films and dodgy Alan Moore adaptations. His character here is a nice enough guy, except that he'll occasionally fantasise about blowing his brains out or committing acts of extreme violence against people who annoy him. Romero's name alone gives this spice. This isn't a gory film, but he's playing with his reputation in moments like the one where we realise that the dog has learned how to turn on the circular saw. Anyway, Flemyng's day just keeps getting worse. The more we learn about his life, the more we realise he's being screwed. I think this is thematically significant, since the movie's all about masks and on the surface even we at first think Flemyng has everything... beautiful wife, ridiculously big house, his best friend as his financial advisor and so on. His life looks wonderful.
It really isn't. Then, one day, he wakes up with no face.
I don't want to spoil where things go from there, although you probably wouldn't be too surprised if I did. It's similar to Romero's neo-vampire film Martin (1977), in that we're never quite sure how much of this is real or merely in Flemyng's mind. It's a fascinating idea, but I'm not sure Romero's making the most of it. I've always admired the strength of his themes, but his films haven't always done full justice to them. Flemyng's changed behaviour is never linked properly to his facelessness, although he does say at one point that "you took the only thing that can't be replaced: my identity."
He couldn't be living in a world more appropriate to the theme, though. He works for a fashion magazine (called Bruiser) and his day-to-day responsibilities include helping to decide who's going to be their next cover girl. Naturally the girl they choose is thrilled and sexually available. Meanwhile his boss is the prince of all tossers, played by Swedish actor Peter Stormare.
It's a world of bullshit and beautiful people, concluding in an Act Three "masquerade", i.e. a horror-themed gimp fetish party. Guess what's about to happen. Spot the irony. The Phantom of the Opera
parallels are obvious and presumably deliberate, but they're also a little distracting from the meat of what Romero's really talking about.
It's worth putting this in the context of Romero's career, since despite the fact that he tends these days to make low-budget or straight-to-video movies, he remains one of the most important American directors currently working. Firstly, this film came out in the middle of Romero's longest dry spell. It's his only movie between The Dark Half (1993) and Land of the Dead (2005). More important though are the thematic links. I've already compared it with Martin, but it's also a thematic continuation of the duality he was looking at in Monkeyshines and The Dark Half. You could almost see them as part of a series, although to be honest The Dark Half feels to me more like King than Romero. Nothing wrong with that, mind you.
It's a good film, although too low-key to please the zombie fanboys. It's also less Kafka-esque than you'd think. Romero has never struck me as a fantasist and here he's making everything so real and down-to-earth, including Flemyng's psychological journey, that it comes across as basically a normal movie with some unexplained mask stuff in it. However the advantage of this is that the film can be both subtle and flexible. The monsters are human and mundane. Flemyng is keeping himself on a leash. It's not a film I'd particularly rush out to recommend to people, but I'm glad I saw it and it's made me keener to check out more of Romero's non-zombie movies.