Living in a world such as today’s, its no wonder how some people might want to just decide to up and leave their lives; their loved ones and the world’s that they know all so well. With the expansion of social media, the rapid decline of privacy and our world’s natural ability to connect people almost effortlessly, picking up and taking off may seem like a suitable alternative. Yet, the newest film from Maria Full of Grace director Joshua Marston offers many promises about the idea of false identities, femme fatales and of course, the illusion and perception of strangers. Complete Unknown is a very dry, empty and almost didactic film about the essence of strangers, friends, family and oneself and the true meaning of self and the people we think we know and surround ourselves with everyday.
Even if we tried, giving away too much of the film is almost impossible, especially if you’ve already seen the trailer to this highly deceptive and promising feature. Unfortunately, the big reveal and climax of the film comes way too early in the film (which is also spoiled in the trailer) and the majority of the film is basically a reunion between two lost lovers who spend a birthday evening catching up. The birthday boy, Tom (Michael Shannon) is surprised when his good friend and business partner brings an unexpected guest date to his quaint birthday gathering in his lovely New York brownstone. When Tom’s business partner Clyde (Michael Churns), brings Alice (Rachel Weisz) as his date to Tom’s birthday party, Clyde is under the impression that Alice is just a coincidental beauty who enjoys the food of their local business cafeteria and who he has made an uncanny connection with. Unknown to him at the time, Alice, whose name is really Jennifer, is a long-lost flame of Tom’s. Jennifer, who, fifteen years ago, walked away on her loved ones and family, and pursued a life as a drifter and civilian of the world, decides, after he life abroad, that her story with Tom isn’t quite finished. Assisting in hospitals as a nurse, becoming a test subject and entertaining for magicians, and studying a very rare type of frog in a nearby New York laboratory, Alice’s passions, hobbies and professions add the to complete enigma that is Alice.
Early on, it is revealed to the audience as well as the guests of Tom’s birthday party that Alice is a compulsive liar who is addicted to the idea of mis-identity and role playing. Her obsession of “living a thousand lives” becomes a very disturbing account of the many passions, desires and thoughts of countless people, who never really are able to live such fantasies out. Yet, as the film progresses and the dialogue builds, Alice’s motives and decision for walking out on Tom becomes as clear a foggy day in London. Even when the reveal of Alice’s true identity of Jenny is made clear, director and writer Marston spends very little effort explaining her pathologically disturbing behaviour to Tom, or the audience. In essence, Jenny’s rationale is a complete unknown, even given her very short family background.
Marston, who covered a very pressing social issue in Maria Full of Grace takes on a complete original work with fellow screenwriter Jualian Sheppard, that is anything but original, and takes too many cues from Mike Nichols’ Closer; Natalie Portman’s alias’ name in the film; the theme of mis-identity and of course, a very powerful and iconic final scene in which our main protagonists are walking amongst many people on a street, being the only individual visible in a crowd of blurred faces.
Complete Unknown is a film that really asks many questions, yet only deals with the questions Tom has for Jenny, and the many answers she keeps flipping around as the film progresses. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is quite actually, the casting. Shannon, who is a veteran actor, has a very powerful range of mournful facial expressions that speak volumes. While Weisz, who is nothing short of alluring, has a natural beauty that is quite forgiving, disarming yet also very engaging once opened up. Weisz and Shannon’s chemistry is one of the few things that are hard to ignore in the film, yet, these two amazingly versatile and talented actors really can’t save a film that could have played better as a short film.
As Jenny’s character reveals to Tom in the fourth act of the film, life allows you to be anyone you really want to be. All it takes is a complete unemotional detachment from the people you love most and some distance from the people who “think” that know you, and you can put yourself anywhere in the world and be anyone you want to be. Yet, with each and every very anti-climatic reveal, we become in engaged in the very distorted reality of Jenny’s world, an almost intoxicating look at the ability to shape, mould and form yourself into anyone at all, yet no one really.
“There is this moment when you’re a blank slate, it’s like a high”.
Easily one of my favourite moments in the film comes in the form of the obligatory novice appearance of older and very wise actors making their way in the festival-indie cameos. This time around, Kathy Bates and Danny Glover play a couple who aren’t struggling at all with their identities, rather, have shared so much of their lives together that their sentences are finished by one another; their emotions synced with each mannerism and nuanced character tick, that when Tom and Jenny are invited into their home through a chance encounter, Jenny’s whole misleading philosophy becomes disproved.
Meeting coincidentally on the side of the road by complete chance, Bate’s Nina is pushed to the ground by her dogs while walking. Holding her up to the living room of her apartment, Tom and Jennifer begin interacting with the elderly couple, with no hopes or expectations at all. While Jennifer begins falsifying her’s and Tom’s professions and lives almost instantly, Tom plays along for the duration of the visit, pretending to be a doctor, aiding in Nina’s pain. Although Tom’s reluctancy to play Jennifer’s game, his embarrassment of revealing who he really is takes hold, which makes him follow suit. While rubbing Nina’s feet and legs and massaging her to comfort, Marston shares one of the most powerful moments and images in Complete Unknown; a moment where Tom, in character, looks at himself in the mirror. Tom’s disconnect from himself and discontent with the person he has become because of Jennifer is one of the most sincere moments in the film. In almost utter disbelief of the person he says he is because of Jennifer, hands trembling and disgust with the person he is at that exact moment, Tom is shaken to his core with his behaviour and reluctancy to stay true to who he really is.
Complete Unknown may not know exactly who or what it wants to be, leaving the film itself with some sort of an identity crisis. Part romance, part suspense character thriller, part drama, Complete Unknown is a film that very much follows its ambiguously generic title, with a completely unknowing and misguided formula.
Night Film Reviews: 4 Out of 10 Moons.
Is Complete Unknown your cup of tea, or a complete waste of your time? Do you think you know whats going on? Or left in the complete dark with Marston’s characters, story and direction? Leave your complete known thoughts below!