People come and go over the course of our lives. Distances emerge between once close friends, and reunions years later can be awkward as the changes that life puts both sides through can pull people even further apart. For all the change that people go through, they’re still themselves; they’ve just evolved. But what if somebody from your past returned as someone else entirely? What if their new persona was just the latest in a long line of identities that have been adopted and discarded over the years? That’s the central question at the heart of Complete Unknown, the new drama from director Joshua Marston. Much like its characters, Complete Unknown has trouble pinning down its identity, but once it does it becomes a fairly engaging, albeit minor, drama.
Rachel Weisz stars in the film, and when we first see her she’s presented in different occupations with different looks. These opening scenes are confusing and the audience is left to ask themselves “Just who is this girl?” for quite a large chunk of the film’s introduction. Eventually, she introduces herself as Alice Manning, a biologist studying frogs, to Clyde (Michael Chernus) at an office building cafeteria. Clyde works with Tom (Michael Shannon) in crafting agriculture-based legislation – fairly mundane work. Later that evening, Clyde brings Alice to Tom’s birthday party. However, Tom operates with extreme suspicion towards his friend’s guest. There’s a history there but it’s not vocalized over the course of the dinner.
Aside from this familiar stranger in his home, Tom is contending with his own set of personal issues with his wife Ramina (Azita Ghanizada), who just got accepted to a program to make jewelry in San Diego. The stress seems to bubble over for Tom, and he winds up privately confronting Alice who he knew in the past as Jenny. Alice or Jenny or whoever she is today reveals that she’s been spending the past 15 years taking on various identities and occupations before moving on to the next persona. A magician’s assistant, a nurse, a botanist are just among some of the occupations she’s undertaken over the years. She gets a high off the thrill of creating a new self to be for a short while.
This modestly budgeted indie probably wouldn’t work as well as it does if not for its two lead performances from Michael Shannon and Rachel Weisz. Shannon has this unique ability to make every movie he appears in better, and the manner with which the actor is able to convey the inner workings of Tom when he spies Jenny (or Alice) in his home is a testament to his power as an actor. He doesn’t have to say it, you can just feel his suspicion, the history, and disbelief at this old acquaintance turned stranger. Conversely, Weisz as this kind of chameleon is a strong, subtle performance. She embodies this blend of seductiveness and pure mystery. Like Tom, you sit there trying to figure out the inner workings of her mind, but she plays the truth close to the vest with rare exception.
Complete Unknown doesn’t always work with a deft sense of pacing. It takes a while for the script by Marston and co-writer Julian Sheppard to set up all of its pieces. But once it establishes itself, Complete Unknown works because the lead performances compliment the mysterious nature of the story. There’s a real dark sense of humor at play in Complete Unknown, though, like everything else, it takes a while to establish everything before letting loose with the levity to counteract the mystery. It’s doesn’t always work, but there’s enough that does to make Complete Unknown a film with its own warped sense of identity.
With two strong lead performances from Michael Shannon and Rachel Weisz, Complete Unknown takes a while to find its footing before turning into a sharp little drama about a mysterious figure with a fluid identity.