In the six-minute pre-credit sequence of director/co-writer Joshua Marston’s intriguing drama, Complete Unknown, Rachel Weisz is seen playing a nurse, a magician’s assistant, and a few other roles. When she meets Clyde (Michael Chernus), in an office-building cafeteria, she is Alice Manning, a woman who has lived in Tasmania and is now researching frogs on Long Island.
Clyde invites Alice to his colleague Tom’s (Michael Shannon) birthday party. She plays frogs sounds for the guests, finds a fossil of a two-footed snake in Tom’s apartment, and recounts a story of being in Mexico and changing her identity to “Consuela” for eighteen months. Everyone thinks Alice is beautiful, exciting, and adventurous. But when Tom arrives to the party and meets Alice, he recognizes her as Jenny, a woman from his past whom he has not seen in 15 years. What transpires between these two ex-lovers is sorted out over the course of the rest of the film.
While Compete Unknown contrives its tale of identity, even down to a clunky bit about Tom’s name being miswritten as “Tony” on his birthday cake, the film does raise some pertinent questions about reinvention. Marston explores how and why and when people can change. This concept is timely for Tom who is trying to navigate a move to California where he wife Ramina (Azita Ghanizada) is going to graduate school, while he is consumed by his job in New York.
The film pivots on Alice’s reason for her reinvention. She describes the “high” she gets from being a blank slate and crafting a new persona. Unfortunately, Complete Unknown does not go deep enough to show how Alice’s various transformations affect her in the long run. Does she maintain any core sense of her own, original identity? And how does she master all of the different lives she has created? (Nevermind the legal issues that may be involved in her actions).
Nevertheless, the point of the film is for Tom to experience, understand, and be beguiled by “being someone else.” It will help him decide about moving to California or not. In a diverting episode, Tom and Alice meet Nina (Kathy Bates), an older woman who falls while walking her dog. As Tom and Alice help Nina home, Tom poses as an orthopedist and helps her with her injury. However, the dramatic tension created by Tom’s lie when Nina requests treatment is facile; it presents a parallel but not matching experience to Alice’s. And this is why Complete Unknown misses the mark: Marston tries to have it both ways, celebrating Alice’s freedom, while also being skeptical of it.
To the film’s credit, Weisz is incredibly appealing, whether she is performing a magic trick in a bar, or being honest with Tom, the last person who knew her before she changed. As Tom, Michael Shannon displays his usual intensity, and it serves his character well.
Complete Unknown is certainly provocative at times, but it ultimately should have been more satisfying.
Complete Unknown opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.