Film Review: Complete Unknown

Rachel Weisz is magnetic in this dreamy drama about an identity-shifting chameleon reuniting with a former flame.
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Complete Unknown opens with a montage of Alice (Rachel Weisz) in a variety of guises—as a chipper young hippie renting a new apartment; as a surgeon in an operating room; as an assistant to a Chinese magician—that culminates with her failing to concoct a story about her past to a lover in bed, followed by the sight of her discarding documents in a trash can and diving into the ocean. It’s a gorgeously succinct setup for an intriguing story about a cipher-like chameleon who’s fashioned her life as a constant game of transformation, and it doubles as a vehicle of reinvention for its director James Marston, whose previous docu-realistic dramas (Maria Full of Grace, The Forgiveness of Blood) share little in common, stylistically, with this sleek, visually sumptuous character study.

Co-written by Marston and Julian Sheppard, Complete Unknown concentrates on Alice as she cunningly ingratiates herself into the life of New York City government official Clyde (Michael Chernus), who—excited by this beautiful woman’s attention—takes her to the birthday party of his Brooklyn co-worker Tom (Michael Shannon), whose marriage to wife Ramina (Azita Ghanizada) has been destabilized by her acceptance into a West Coast jewelry-designing program. Marston neatly details Alice’s strategic methods for studying and befriending Clyde. However, her true motivation for doing so only become apparent when, after regaling guests with talk of her Tasmanian adventures, she comes face to face with Tom—a serious man who spends his days writing e-mail recommendations (he prefers the term “correspondences”) related to agricultural policy—and it becomes clear that they once knew each other, when she was known as Jenny and they were a couple.

Their ensuing night together involves clandestine confrontations, an unexpected detour into role-playing when they help a dog-walker (Kathy Bates) get home to her husband (Danny Glover) after a nasty sidewalk fall, and then a trip to Alice’s current place of employment—a research facility where she’s working with noisy frogs. Marston downplays this nocturnal journey’s less believable twists and turns by crafting an omnipresent atmosphere first of restless discontent, and then of dreamy longing for escape. At times, Complete Unknown dispenses a tad too much exposition about Alice’s identity-swapping history and routine. Yet the film shrewdly refuses to overtly explain her reasons for charting this nomadic course, instead having her discuss feeling trapped and akin to a “prisoner” to convey that she’s not only fleeing stasis and responsibility (especially the kind that comes from being tied to others), but also chasing after an elusive sort of “freedom”—one that comes from starting anew, and which can’t be sustained once a new identity’s freshness begins to fade.

Shot in rich, dark hues that encase its protagonists in a warm (and borderline suffocating) embrace, and marked by long takes fixated on its headliners’ performances, Complete Unknown never hits a true dramatic peak. Still, its suggestion of various larger issues—about how we define ourselves, about what provides genuine and lasting satisfaction, and about the shaky, constantly shifting line between courage and cowardice—proves haunting. Moreover, it’s bolstered by two superb lead turns. Tamping down any hint of the off-kilter menace that’s defined so much of his recent output, Shannon marvelously underplays Tom’s confusion over Alice’s sudden reappearance after a 15-year absence, allowing his character’s shell-shocked state to gradually afford an opportunity for necessary self-reflection. Meanwhile, Weisz (recalling her work in Terence Davies’ 2011 The Deep Blue Sea) strikes a delicate balance between poised exterior confidence and unsteady interior terror; in a series of late downward glances, she beautifully evokes a world of knotty, contradictory emotions and impulses that, ultimately, are destined to remain ambiguous, and unresolved.

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