D: Joshua Marston / 91m
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Michael Chernus, Azita Ghanizada, Omar Metwally, Frank De Julio, Condola Rashad, Kathy Bates, Danny Glover
What if you could just up and walk away from the life you were living, and go and be somebody else, assume a different identity and create a history for yourself to go with that identity? And what if you could do that over and over, changing your name and your looks every so often, and living a new life each time? What would be the rewards of doing such a thing? What would be the downside? And even if you could, why would you do it in the first place?
This is what Rachel Weisz’s character, Jenny, does. The movie opens by introducing us to some of the identities she’s adopted in the fifteen years since she left her home and family and friends behind and became someone else. She’s lived in Australia, been a magician’s assistant in China, and an ER nurse somewhere in the US. Currently she’s a biologist who’s part of a team that have discovered a previously unknown species of frog in Tasmania. Her name is Alice Manning, and her work has brought her back to New York, where she comes from originally. Looking to reconnect with her past she tracks down Tom (Shannon), a land reform advocate on a mission to have environmental protection clauses inserted into the legislature. As we learn later on, Tom is Jenny’s only link to her past since the death of her father, and despite the time and distance she’s put between her first life and her current one, she still has a need to affirm its existence.
Adopting a softly, slowly approach, Alice gets to know Tom’s work partner, Clyde (Chernus). She dazzles him, and when it comes time for Tom’s birthday, Clyde invites her along to the birthday party as his plus one. Once there, Tom becomes suspicious that Alice isn’t Alice, but the Jenny he remembers. As the party continues, Alice admits to changing her identity when she wants to. Some of the guests are impressed, others think it’s a horrible idea because of the lies involved. Tom remains bemused, certain and yet uncertain that Alice is Jenny. He tries to tackle her about it, but her answers offer confirmation and non-confirmation at the same time. It’s only when they all go to a club to spend the rest of the evening dancing that Tom becomes convinced that it’s Jenny and not Alice. When she leaves, in a hurry to get away suddenly, he follows her and gets her to admit to her deception.
What follows can best be described as a cinematic chamber piece, as Alice and Tom walk the streets debating the rights and wrongs of Jenny’s “lifestyle”, encounter Kathy Bates’ Nina who is out walking her dog, and who subsequently has a fall, and her husband Roger (Glover) when they help her back to her apartment. Further discussion around why Jenny left follows, and eventually, Tom tells her he wants to see how she moves on to the next identity. Having experienced some form of emotional epiphany, Tom returns home to his wife, Remina (Ghanizada)… and on the cusp of a revelation, the movie ends.
Fans of very slow-paced dramas will enjoy the last half an hour of Complete Unknown, as the script – by director Marston and Julian Sheppard – winds down in terms of pace, interest, and credibility. It’s here that Marston sheds any notion that he knows where the movie is going, and the viewer is left wondering if there has been any point to the movie at all. Tom and Alice/Jenny’s relationship is the key focus by this time, but it’s not as dramatic as it should be, and Marston is unable to create any drama or sense of heightened feelings as the emotionally distant duo fret over each other’s pain, but only for a short period before they move on. For both there are meant to be “lessons learned”, but it’s hard to tell if any “lessons” have been doled out. Jenny can’t explain with any precision why she does what she does, and Tom is so tightly wound-up at times that it’s hard to work out if he’s mad at Jenny for disappearing all those years ago, or because his marriage is about to go through a potentially very rough patch.
Throughout the movie, Marston fails to explain things in a way that isn’t confusing to the viewer, or problematical for the characters. Jenny/Alice’s motivation for leaving behind her original life remains spurious at worst, and unsatisfactory at best. And more importantly, the script never sells the viewer on the reasons for Jenny/Alice wanting to return to her roots, undermining her previous determination to avoid any confrontation from her past. Similarly, Tom’s steely-eyed persistence in wanting to know why Jenny left so abruptly, is shown as being immediate and close to the surface, the dynamic of which seems absurd given the passage of time. Are we really meant to believe that he hasn’t moved on after fifteen years? And if we are, then why doesn’t the script explain why?
It’s these dramatic exclusions that hurt the movie most, draining it of the few mystery elements it’s set up at the beginning. The result is a dry, mannered, unconvincing movie that fails to provide depth for its characters to build on, and lacks the necessary desire to fill in the multitude of gaps in the narrative. Marston doesn’t really know where his movie is going to, and he’s curiously unable to make sense of Jenny’s need for reinvention, or the mechanics of it (toward the end, Tom challenges Jenny over her ability to change her identity, and tells her he wants to see how she does it; she takes him to her apartment and packs a bag – and that’s it).
Against this, Weisz provides a thankfully intuitive performance that goes a long way toward helping the viewer engage with the material, but even she can only do so much. Shannon is largely passive throughout, his face a blank canvas that gives little away, and his default manner one of bewilderment. In their scenes together there’s precious little spark to help explain the feelings they had for each other, and why it’s so important for Jenny to see Tom again, and the distance between them is another aspect of the production that Marston is unable to do anything about.
Rating: 4/10 – questions of identity are left hanging in Complete Unknown, and what could have been an absorbing, insightful examination of one woman’s need to be different versions of herself, is abandoned in favour of a trite, vaguely rewarding trawl through poorly constructed dialogues that leave everything open for interpretation; a slowburn movie that treats its central character like a cypher (because it can’t do anything else with her), Marston’s micro-drama is unlikely to generate the interest it needs in order to find an audience willing to forgive its indolence.