“Complete Unknown” is a movie about a human question mark, a woman with multiple identities. Which, if any, is the real one?
We are introduced to the woman who calls herself Alice, played by Rachel Weisz, in an opening montage that features her in various guises ranging from surgical nurse to magician’s assistant. In the present day, posing as some kind of bio researcher recently returned from Tasmania, she joins a birthday dinner party at the Brooklyn home of Tom (Michael Shannon), a government employee, and his wife, Ramina (Azita Ghanizada), a jewelry designer who has an offer to study for two years in California. Their marriage, it appears, is shaky.
Alice is the life of the party, regaling the guests with her exploits. She makes the candid confession that, years ago, she walked away from her life in the United States and created a new identity for herself in a foreign country. But the details she provides are sketchy. Only Tom among the dinner guests seems suspicious, and it soon becomes clear why: Fifteen years ago, when she was called Jenny, they were a serious couple before she mysteriously walked out of his life.
Shannon is usually playing human question marks in the movies, so it’s a twist here to see him playing the “normal” guy, except Shannon is too unconventional an actor to play anything in the normal range. With Tom, he makes us aware of how this man seeks the solace of a routine life even as he recoils from it.
When he and Jenny (as Tom calls her) are alone, in the wake of the dinner party, their stories begin to play out. It becomes clear that, for Tom, she represents the promise of chucking it all, even if he can only fantasize about doing the same thing. There’s a terrific scene in which, finding themselves together after the party has moved to a local disco, they help an infirm woman on the street (Kathy Bates) back to her apartment, whereupon Jenny introduces Tom as a physician who can ease her ills. Tom, grudgingly, but with a tinge of thrill, plays the part.
Director Joshua Marston, who co-wrote the screenplay with Julian Sheppard, is overly fond of enigmatic mind games and conundrums. Weisz does the best she can playing someone without an inner core – a woman who exists only in vivid fragments – but ultimately she is more of an intellectual concept than a fully inhabited human being. She is a stand-in for the unknowingness of it all, the mystery at the heart of identity and all that jazz. The movie exists for long stretches as a quasi-philosophic dialogue between Tom and Jenny – it could easily be transposed to the stage – and it all becomes overweeningly “existential.” Marston probably believes that the essential vagueness at the heart of his movie will buy off all this high-toned hoo-ha. But, as performers, the strength and immediacy of Shannon and Weisz expose the hollowness of that belief. They require a movie with some ballast, even if they are playing people without any. Grade: B- (Rated R for some language.)