Complete Unknown (2016) / Drama-Mystery
MPAA Rated: R for some language
Running Time: 91 min.
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Michael Chernus, Azita Ghanizada, Kathy Bates, Danny Glover
Small role: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Mary Kay Place
Director: Joshua Marston
Screenplay: Joshua Marston, Julian Sheppard
Review published September 27, 2016
Michael Shannon (Elvis & Nixon, Midnight Special) plays Tom, celebrating his birthday at a critical time in his life, wondering what to do when his Persian wife (Ghanizada, "Alphas") is on the verge of moving from their home in New York to California to continue her education and help in her passion to make jewelry as a career. At the party, Tom's workmate Clyde (Chernus, The Family Fang) brings over a guest, Alice (Weisz, The Lobster), a new acquaintance he hopes will eventually be more. We know what the guests of Tom's party does not, thanks to an opening montage: this stranger has had many identities over the years, and Alice is just her latest. When she reveals her past at the party, it becomes all the buzz, and as Tom gets to talking to her more, we soon find out that they are both hiding secrets - the woman who must move on whenever she becomes trapped in a life and the man so set in his ways, he has a hard time leaving even when there's not much to stay for.
Directed and co-scripted by Joshua Marston (The Forgiveness of Blood, Maria Full of Grace), Complete Unknown is more of a film of exploration and examination more than it is a complete narrative. Signs point Tom to the possibilities of other identities he never thinks to have, starting with a cake with writing on it that says, "Happy birthday, Tony!", but he adamantly remains Tom. Alice makes an attempt for him to see what it's like to be liberated from yourself, and soon it becomes clear what her angle is in her quest to open up Tom's mind to the possibilities and the virtues of escape. The real question by the end of the film is whether the clearly unhappy and listless Tom wants to be Tony (or anyone else he likes), or if he's going to continue to lie in the bed he's made all of his life.
It's a challenging film to observe, as we wonder whether the story may have benefitted from not cluing us in on the nature of the Weisz's character's "past lives" right from the get-go, which does diffuse a good deal of the mystery as the story unravels right out of the gate. Marston clearly is more interested in offering up questions and new perspectives on the subject than providing ready answers or fulfilling the promise of the thematic material, which may also frustrate some viewers who are looking for a main point to grasp without doing the heavy lifting themselves. Is Weisz's character living life to its full my experiencing more of it from several perspectives? Is she deceiving people unnecessarily by continuously lying to them about who she is and what she knows? Does she put people at risk on the job by claiming knowledge and expertise in areas she does not possess? Ultimately, is she selfish and reckless, or is she heroic and adventurous? Is she courageous for taking chances, or is she merely scared, ditching her lives when faced with real challenges? These are the questions you'll likely wrestle with as you walk out of the theater, should you choose to stick with the intrigue underneath the surface of the story as it plays out.
Complete Unknown may not be everyone's cup of tea, as it is a bit slow to get going, and there isn't a pat resolution to all of the questions raised, but it does succeed in at least finding new an interesting ideas to chew on, leaving us some complex themes to discuss when it's all said and done. We've all fantasized, at one time or another, what life might have been like if we would have chosen a different path. If we truly wanted to, could we do it? What would we choose, and how would it affect the life and people we leave behind?
Even if you don't enjoy the film, you'll likely enjoy the conversation afterward with the people you know...or think you know.
©2016 Vince Leo