The masks of cinema

Should they stay on or go off? (spoiler notice)

Like Chekhov’s gun, it seems a golden rule that whenever a mask shows up in a film, an unmasking must follow. Masks have a strange allure on us. They invariably hide something, be it a promise or a disappointment. In film, masks are used to hide identities, to build legends, to alter perceptions.

What I’m interested in is whether or not the mask should stay on, or eventually be removed. What are the benefits of an unmasking versus maintaining the mystery? For mystery is the currency of a mask. Remove it and you show the face underneath it as inevitably human, flawed, mortal. What did movies of the past do with their masks, and why? Let’s examine a few.

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
No more recognizable a mask than Darth Vader’s. Here’s an example of myth building. In the first installment, A New Hope, Vader was merely a flunky to the real threat behind the Empire: Grand Moff Tarkin. The mask set the public’s imagination ablaze, however, and Vader was pushed front and center. In Return of the Jedi, his mask is finally removed. What we see is the face of an old, tired, helpless man. The contrast between that face and the menace Vader inspired could not be greater, which is of course the point of the unmasking. Luke’s suspicions were correct: the Dark Side corrupts and destroys its followers.

V for Vendetta
No modern day mask has put a greater stamp on society than V’s facsimile of Guy Fawkes. Amorphous internet activist group Anonymous seized upon the image to make it their shared face. The reasons are obvious: V is an icon of rebellion and anarchy. In the film his mask becomes the symbol for the resistance against an oppressive government. True to his message, V is never unmasked. His real face is scarred in a fire and as he says himself: “There is a face beneath this mask, but it’s not me. I’m no more that face than I am the muscles beneath it, or the bones beneath them.” V’s myth remained intact to inspire insurrection even after he was gone.

Kingdom of Heaven
Wasting away by leprosy, the king of Jerusalem masked himself with a golden face. It represented his pure and lofty ideals more than his real, disintegrating features. After his death, Ridley Scott chose to include a scene in the film where he is unmasked by his sister. She is subsequently shocked as she, and we, see his horrible face. In my opinion, this was a mistake. This unmasking serves no purpose beyond sensationalism. We already guessed the king of Jerusalem to be merely a man, since he himself never helped construct a false myth. Unmasking him post mortem merely removed the last bit of thrill surrounding the man, meanwhile doing nothing for the plot.

20th Century Boys
A man who does build a myth is Tomodachi, a mysterious cult leader. For three films he eludes identification, creating an air of mystery that captivates and fools the entire world. Indeed, he employs tricks and subterfuge to make others believe he possesses supernatural powers. His unmasking is a complete necessity: it is the main riddle both the cast and the audience want to figure out. But when it finally happens there is mainly disappointment: it is a blank face, absolutely unremarkable, a face that could’ve been invisible just by standing in a crowd of others. The lesson is that the mask held all the power. Without it, this man would never have been capable of inspiring anything in anyone.

The Dark Knight Rises
Bane wears half of a mask. We see his eyes, which immediately makes us think we can see his face. This is a trick, of course. The monstrous mouthpiece covering his jaw builds just as much of a myth as any full mask would. Bane is aware of this, as demonstrated by his musings: “No one cared who I was until I put on the mask.” Of note is that his real face, or whatever afflictions lie beneath it, is never revealed. Though his mask is destroyed, his face remains a mystery. His myth lies in tatters too, though: once he was defeated by Batman, his true form became irrelevant.

The takeaway here is that there is only a point to unmasking when there is still a myth or mystery to bust. One of the universal lessons of cinema is apparently that men building myths around themselves, men who construct false identities, must not be tolerated. Sometimes filmmakers choose to maintain the myth, to either puzzle the viewer or because a deconstruction would hurt the plot. Most of the times the rules of Chekhov’s gun apply: when a mask comes into play, at the end it must come off.

Roderick Leeuwenhart