UNKNOWN WHITE MALENR
On the morning of July 1, 2003, a wealthy New Yorker named Douglas Bruce disappeared. But the 33-year-old British native wasn't kidnapped, killed or otherwise spirited away. In fact, he could be seen riding a Coney Island-bound subway train early that same day. Although Doug was present in body, his mind was a blank slate; he had no memory of who he was, where he was going or how he got there in the first place. When the train reached the end of the line, he aimlessly wandered the streets looking for help. Eventually he found his way into a police station, but because he didn't have any ID, the cops could only escort him to a local hospital. Checked in as a John Doe, Doug was repeatedly asked by the hospital staff if he knew of anyone who might be able to identify him. As the hours dragged by, he grew more and more frightened that he'd never be rescued. Fortunately, one of the books he was carrying with him had a phone number scribbled inside that turned out to be the number of the mother of a girl he had dated some time ago. The woman didn't recognize his name, but the minute Doug got on the phone, she remembered his voice. Soon, her daughter arrived at the hospital and escorted Doug back to a home he didn't recognize and a life he couldn't remember.
Even the best screenwriters would be hard-pressed to script a more compelling opening act, and the first half of Rupert Murray's documentary Unknown White Male does play like the set-up for a great thriller. After returning from his harrowing trip to Coney Island, Doug immediately undergoes a battery of tests and consults a number of psychiatric experts, all of whom have different explanations for why this seemingly healthy man lost his memory overnight. But they do agree on the diagnosis: Doug suffers from severe retrograde amnesia, meaning that his general knowledge of the world (along with basic abilities like speaking and walking) remains intact while all of his personal memories have been erased. Because they don't know what caused his condition, they also don't know when-or even if-he'll ever be cured. Faced with the very real possibility that the old Doug Bruce is gone for good, Doug tentatively sets about creating a new identity for himself, one that is markedly different from the person he used to be.
It's at this point that Unknown White Male really becomes something unique. No doubt realizing that his experience would be of interest to others, Doug shot a great deal of personal footage depicting his reintroduction to the world. In one of the film's most memorable moments, he videotapes himself meeting his father and sister for what to him is the first time. Later on, he returns to London to visit his best friends, and it's fascinating-and a little sad-to watch the awkward way they strain to recapture their former camaraderie. In addition to Doug's own footage, Murray (who was actually one of Doug's closest mates in his previous life) follows his subject on some of his travels and films all the requisite interviews with friends, family members and medical experts. He also restages certain incidents, such as Doug's journey to Coney Island. In general, these sequences are the least effective, largely because Murray goes a bit too far in trying to recreate Doug's state of mind, relying on a distracting fish-eye lens and woozy tracking shots. He's also overly fond of filling the gaps between interviews with montages of stock nature footage, which are pretty to look at but otherwise don't contribute very much to the film.
Nevertheless, Doug's story is strong enough to make up for these occasional filmmaking lapses. Unknown White Male picks up where films like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind leave off, examining the larger implications and aftereffects of memory loss instead of primarily employing it (however effectively) as a plot device. Watching Doug's experiences can't help but stir the viewer to contemplate how he or she would handle his unenviable situation. As the film ends, Doug has not simply survived his ordeal-he's actually flourished. The glimpses we see of the old Doug through home movies and interviews paint a portrait of a fun-loving laddie type. This new man is more of a quiet introvert with a deep and genuine interest in the world around him. Perhaps the movie's most haunting scene finds Doug sitting at his computer watching an old film that Murray brought with him, which shows their old crew clowning about on the London streets. He stares in quiet amazement as this young stranger with his face and name mugs for the camera. It's an extraordinary moment in an unexpectedly extraordinary life.