Editor’s Note: Complete Unknown is currently playing in wide theatrical release.
Almost despite itself, Complete Unknown, Joshua Marston’s third film (The Forgiveness of Blood, Maria Full of Grace), succeeds, not due to Marston’s deliberately equivocal writing or literally shallow direction, but due to its two leads, Michael Shannon and Rachel Weisz. Shannon, the yearly winner of the Mr. Intensity Award, gives a measured, controlled performance as a middle-aged agro-economist, uncomfortable with the relatively safe, secure life choices he’s made as an adult, from his work for an economics institute to his faltering marriage, who reunites with a “woman from his past,” the one who literally got away (she disappeared without a trace fifteen years earlier). Weisz’s multi-layered performance as an identity-hopping chameleon serves as an important reminder that remains one of our most best, if sadly underused actresses working today. Apart from Shannon and Weisz’s respective performance, however, Complete Unknown takes a disappointingly shallow dive into a deep subject: identity and its discontents.
Director Joshua Marston deliberately bobs and weaves around Alice’s motivations for identity switching, a decision that’s both admirable (because it avoids the usually reductive answers) and frustrating (for possibly the same reasons).
Complete Unknown centers on a mystery, but it’s not a mystery in the sense of a thriller, at least not in the traditional sense. Marston gives away the answer to what could have been a tedious, forced question involving Weisz’s character, Alice Manning, by introducing her via a prologue that shows Alice (not her real identity) changing identities almost as effortlessly as the average person changes clothes, first as a post-grad hippie living a relaxed, bohemian lifestyle, later as an emergency room nurse, a magician’s assistant (she falls through a trap door, alerting the audience of the metaphors to come), a businesswoman, and finally a biologist studying a new species of frog in the wilds of Long Island, where, through subterfuge and manipulation, she engineers a “chance” meeting with her onetime college boyfriend, Tom (Shannon), at his 37th birthday party.
Before Tom and Alice reunite through the looking glass, Marston introduces Tom at work and at home. At work, he expresses frustration at the seemingly marginal effects his contributions make to larger, economic issues. At home, Tom clashes with his Iranian-born wife, Ramina (Azita Ghanizada), over her decision to attend graduate school in San Diego. Moving to San Diego means leaving his professional and personal life in New York behind, a decision made all the more difficult given Tom’s innate resistance to change of any kind (he still lives in his childhood home, his parents having decamped to Europe for their retirement). When Alice appears at his birthday party as the guest of his colleague and friend, Clyde (Michael Chernus), Tom reacts as any normal person would, with shocked, stunned disbelief.
Almost despite itself, Complete Unknown, Joshua Marston’s third film, succeeds, not due to Marston’s deliberately equivocal writing or literally shallow direction, but due to its two leads, Michael Shannon and Rachel Weisz.
Tom recovers quickly, however, cornering Alice at the first opportunity and getting her to admit her “real” identity. Alice’s obsessive desire for self-invention, built on lies, omissions, and prevarications, almost scuttles the evening, however. In short order, the party moves from Tom and Ramina’s temporary home to a nearby nightclub and eventually, just Tom and Alice as they go through a mini-odyssey of self (and other) discovery. The lure and attraction of identity swapping comes into play when Tom and Alice help an elderly woman, Nina (Kathy Bates), walk back to her apartment after she suffers a foot injury. Tom plays along when Alice claims they’re doctors to Nina and her husband, Roger (Danny Glover). A last-minute save from Alice and her improvisational skills helps Tom avoid a potentially disastrous relationship.
Marston deliberately bobs and weaves around Alice’s motivations for identity switching, a decision that’s both admirable (because it avoids the usually reductive answers) and frustrating (for possibly the same reasons). To hear Alice tell it, an unreliable narrator if there ever was one, it started as a lark, during a holiday in Mexico before turning into a lifelong pursuit (nine alternate identities and counting) of self-invention, moving from state to state, country to country, and forming, then ending multiple personal relationships. Marston sidesteps the egotism, narcissism, and cruelty inherent in Alice’s behavior (i.e., the broken relationships, the hearts broken), alluding only to Alice’s mother, a woman she hasn’t seen in years or Alice’s father (he passed away in the interim), but there seems to be little, if any, long-term cost or impact to Alice for her actions. Once she sloughs off her old identity, a new one takes its places.
Complete Unknown, Joshua Marston’s third film, takes a disappointingly shallow dive into the deep subject of identity and its discontents, yet the film still works, thanks to Michael Shannon and Rachel Weisz.