Complete Unknown (2016) Review
Complete Unknown is a drama about the consequences of self-reinvention and the haunts of a troubling past.
There’s no denying the impact of the photographic style in Complete Unknown. It’s up close, tightly personal, most often very near to the characters as if we are trying to become part of their place in the story. Many times, faces partially obscured, though this echoes the theme of the film as well, the idea that what we see and hear are not always as lucid or authentic as we believe. It’s a challenging, complex story, beautifully filmed and acted, that builds from a smart opening to an uneven end.
The opening montage reveals a woman who appears in vastly different roles from a botanists looking for a new home to a highly qualified nurse in an emergency room to a magician’s assistant in China to a woman sitting in a car across the street from a suburban home and then sitting at a computer seemingly interested in the profile of a bearded man. It is the last one that bears the most weight, at least in the following moments as the plot unspools.
She is, at this point, Alice (Rachel Weisz) and we see her next in a company cafeteria flirting with a pudgy, bearded man, the same as the one in the profile. He is Clyde (Michael Chernus), a man in a business partnership with Tom (Michael Shannon), who is stressing over something about “grazing trends.” He is married to Ramina (Azita Ghanizada), a Pakistani women who has just been accepted to a prestigious two-year jewelry-crafting course all the way across the country and a choice needs to be made. When Clyde brings Alice to Tom’s birthday party, she explains to the small gathering that she has just come from Tazmania, researching a newly discovered species of frog. She even has a recording of their song. When Tom sees her though, he is clearly affected but keeps it to himself until they have a moment alone. To Tom, she is not Alice, but Jenny, a woman he was involved with fifteen years earlier who disappeared without a trace and long considered dead.
Directed by Joshua Marston, Complete Unknown is a not a thriller even though the above description and marketing might suggest so but is rather a slow-cooker examination at one life exposed and one life unfulfilled. Alice and Tom are not dangerous ex-lovers on a crash course to a violent climax like many in the genre. If anything it is wholly the opposite. Tom is curious about what happened to Jenny but Alice is a less interested in returning to the old her. She has been many people since then, the images at the start of movie in fact all truths of her years to now. Her reasons for abandoning herself so long ago are ones more about opportunity at first but become agents of freedom not long after. Becoming someone new is not just an art for Alice, it is a need. And Tom, whose life is one suspended in a circle is curious how she does it. Most especially, how she leaves.
Both Weisz and Shannon are compelling, both accomplished actors who have had success before with carefully muted characters that harbor internal conflicts. Shannon especially seems inherently bred with a melancholy weight that make performances such as this so engrossing, and Weisz does remarkably well as a woman buried under layers of personas running from something she has yet to truly understand. Except for one thing. Tom.
What does it take to flee from what seems like anchors and rid oneself of that singular, unending road ahead? Is it courage or folly? Deception or adventure? Complete Unknown isn’t trying to answer these questions as indeed, Alice and Tom themselves don’t even know to ask them in the first place. Tom learns he is not only able to understand her, but when he and her meet an elderly couple (Danny Glover and Kathy Bates) on the street, discovers he is as skilled as Alice in the practice of a lie. To what end, he must decide for himself.
Complete Unknown wants us to think deeply about Alice and Tom and the merits or lack thereof of the choices both have made. Both characters lure us into their webs but they are each far too simplistic to become truly captivating. The film stretches a thin narrative to great lengths, and while both leads make this a solid experience, its ending is obvious and forced, leaving us feeling a little malnourished after a great start. Still, for indie fans hooked on conversational exposition (which is by no means a criticism), there is a lot here to hold your attention. Just be prepared for a flat finish.
Complete Unknown (2016)
Director: Joshua Marston
Writers: Joshua Marston, Julian Sheppard
Stars: Michael Shannon, Rachel Weisz