Have you ever reached a moment in your life when you just wanted to say, “Enough?” When you wished you could just walk away from everything and start a completely different life somewhere else, no strings attached?
If this notion intrigues you, welcome to Complete Unknown. This low-key character study from filmmaker Joshua Marston is built around a woman who prefers to make up her life as she goes along—one new, invented identity at a time. On the other hand, if this sounds like your vision of hell, and you like your life just the way it is, thank you, then you might not find Marston’s film quite so compelling. The premise is fascinating, but despite heroic performances from stars Rachel Weisz and Michael Shannon, the movie never really evolves much past its initial set-up.
This is a shame, because Marston is capable of much more resonant work. An American filmmaker with multicultural sensibilities, he’s best known for the harrowing but engrossing Maria Full of Grace. His most recent feature, the deeply moving The Forgiveness of Blood, about modern Albanian teenagers paying the price for their elders’ blood feuds, was one of my favorite films of 2011—it was never released in Santa Cruz, but do yourself a favor and catch up with it any way you can.
Complete Unknown revolves around Alice (Weisz), a researcher at a New York City bio lab, who starts eating at the lunchroom of the ag administration corporation across the street. There, she chats up Clyde (Michael Chernus), an administrator who eventually invites her to a birthday party for his friend and colleague, Tom (Shannon). Tom’s a workaholic whose Iranian wife, Ramina (Azita Ghanizada), an aspiring jewelry-maker, has just been accepted into a prestigious graduate program across the continent in San Diego.
At the party, Alice dazzles everyone with her tales of growing up in the wilds of Tasmania with her botanist parents. But Tom is certain he recognizes her as a woman named Jenny he had an affair with 15 years earlier who suddenly disappeared from his life. She finally admits it, even though there’s none of the chemistry between them we might expect from people who had been as ardent lovers as Tom seems to think they were.
As the party progresses from Tom and Ramina’s apartment to a dance club to the remote exurban pond where Alice studies frog songs, Tom is drawn into her reckless life of serial identities. In the film’s best sequence, they encounter a bubbly mensch (Kathy Bates), out walking her dog, who trips and sprains her foot. They help her back to her apartment, claiming to be surgeons, dispensing medical advice to the woman and her Haitian husband (Danny Glover), and we can see how thrilled Tom is to make up a completely new identity for himself on the spot.
It’s unfortunate that Marston begins with an opening montage showing Alice/Jenny in some of her various personae—ER trauma nurse; assistant to a Chinese stage magician. It might have been more interesting if her past was revealed in tantalizing, if unlikely bits, and the audience got to play along, trying to decide if any of it was true. But this way, we already know more than the party guests quizzing her, and we’re impatient to get on with it.
Which leads to the main problem: once the premise is finally established, and the viewer has glimpsed the possibilities, as well as the potential drawbacks, of living an untethered life, the movie ends. We want to know more about how her lifestyle impacts Alice, and how she feels about it. We want to better understand the kind of pull Alice’s example exerts on Tom at this crossroads in his own life. (We feel his frustration when he disparages his job as sending emails “suggesting guidelines.”)
But Marston retreats, just when it seems like the real story is about to begin. He sets us up for a complex drama, but only delivers a prologue.
**1/2 (out of four)
With Rachel Weisz and Michael Shannon. Written by Joshua Marston and Julian Sheppard. Directed by Joshua Marston. An IFC Film release. Rated R. 90 minutes.