Before the opening credits of Complete Unknown
we see a woman played by Rachel Weisz working as a biologist in Tasmania, tending to an injured man as a trauma nurse, and beaming at a crowd as a magician's assistant. She goes by different names – Alice, Jenny and Consuela are three of them.
Obviously, a moment will come when Alice (I'll just go with Alice for now) will be confronted about her multiple identities, or we will see her exhibiting some sort of demented behavior. Certainly, someone who knows Alice from a previous incarnation will recognize her and have some something to say.
In a mainstream film, the big reveal would come about two-thirds of the way through, followed by a heap of drama. But director Joshua Marston (who co-wrote the screenplay with Julian Sheppard) is an indie movie maker, and he takes a different approach.
Alice, now set up in NYC, becomes acquainted with a fellow that invites her to a birthday party for a colleague of his named Tom, who is played by Michael Shannon. Tom is having trouble at home over whether or not to move to a new city with his wife.
At the party, he recognizes Alice as a woman named Jenny he dated 15 years ago. Jenny (I'll stick with Jenny for the remainder of this essay) becomes the center of attention at the party when she shares her pattern of changing identities. She says that she left home all those years ago without telling her family where she was going, and that she never got in touch with them afterward.
So there you go. The big reveal is out there, and now what do we do?
I was taken with the film up to this point. Weisz and Shannon are powerful actors and watching them work was a treat. I worried a bit about Shannon's place in the film – he's played so many intense characters that I feared he would wrest the spotlight from Weisz with his glaring eyes. But director Marston neatly plays Jenny's silky confessions against Tom's tightly-buttoned righteousness.
Here he stands with this woman who held such a big place in his life, listening to her being honest about her lies. Maybe that's too harsh … of her reinventions. Whatever it is, it feels wrong.
Marston takes his time introducing Weisz's characters and allowing us to observe the birthday party. His well-cast ensemble do fine work reacting to Jenny's confessions. Some are taken with her daring, while others are appalled by her deceptions and her willingness to abruptly disappear from the lives of her loved ones.
The unique structural approach of the story carries us nicely through more than half of the movie (maybe as much as two/thirds) before we reach the “Um … what now?” point. Jenny and Tom wander the streets talking. They have an encounter with an old couple (Kathy Bates and Danny Glover – nice to see them) that allows Tom the opportunity to pretend to be someone else for a while.
And then? Marston finds a way to conclude his story, but there's no great surprise, no philosophical blow to the gut. Some will be disappointed, and will likely be dismissive of the movie. Not me. I won't be championing the film, it's not that memorable. But I suggest that if you found the description of the story even a little intriguing, you give the movie a shot.
I'm a big fan of the “it's not the destination, it's the journey” school of thinking, unless the destination is a brothel or an amusement park. Joshua Marsdon does a dandy job building up to and gliding through the big reveal at the birthday party, he maintains interest through the late night stroll, and then he ends not with a bang, but with a quieter sound. Fine, so he doesn't stick the landing.
most likely will not become an indie sensation. I doubt if there will be any acting awards for Rachel Weisz or Michael Shannon, though they are both quite good. It's a modest tale about the roles we play, told in an unusual fashion. There are rewards to be had here, if you're willing to meet the filmmaker halfway.