Complete Unknown

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday August 26, 2016

Rachel Weisz stars in 'Complete Unknown'
Rachel Weisz stars in 'Complete Unknown'  

Boiling it down to its essence, Joshua Marston's enigmatic film "Complete Unknown" is a tale of an unstoppable force and an immovable object. She -- Alice, formerly known as Jennifer, among other names (Rachel Weisz) -- is the unstoppable one, almost pathologically incapable of settling, be it in a locale, a profession, or even an identity. He -- Tom (Michael Shannon), now married but still raw over the way she abandoned him fifteen years earlier -- isn't immovable by choice, but rather from a form of hesitancy tantamount to paralysis.

What happens when the two of them slam into one another once again?

This fascinating thought experiment unfolds, mostly, over the course of a single evening, starting with a birthday party, loping to a club, insinuating itself into the apartment of an unsuspecting, middle-aged couple, and making a side trip to a marsh full of toads. It's a road trip without the road.

Tom's wife Ramina (Azita Ghanizada) has been accepted into a prestigious jewelry-making program in California, but Tom -- who has made career out of forging "guidelines" to proposed legislation drafted to protect farmers -- finds himself rooted to the spot and considering letting her leave without him. Tom tells himself that he's worried about the welfare of the thousands of farmers the legislation will affect; Ramina doesn't buy it. Though the two seem superficially happy, there's a distance, and a coolness, to their marriage that's overt from the very first lines of dialogue they exchange.

All of that is about to heat up, however, when Clyde (Michael Chernus), Tom's colleague from work, brings his new friend to Tom's birthday dinner as a date. You guessed it: He's bringing Alice, and her presence there is anything but accidental.

Alice is open about her name-changing, mute-career-spanning past, at least to a point, but even her limited sharing is too much for most of the people at the party. They hurl insults and accusations at Alice, calling her "deceptive" and treating her with a combination of moral outrage and sanitary uncertainty, as if they feared some sort of violent mental breakdown or communicable madness. Alice would be glad to pick up her purse and leave -- and leave it at that -- but Tom (who, tellingly enough, doesn't reveal his past connection to her) follows her into the night, and that's when this movie starts to gel in all sorts of unexpected and challenging ways.

Alice succeeds in getting Tom to participate briefly in her way of doing things, which is partially a game of make-believe but also, crucially, a process that relies on complete openness to spontaneous self-discovery. Certainties melt away: Alice isn't a mere pathological liar, and she's not simply toying with others for her own amusement. This is the hook that won't let Tom go, and it draws him in deeper, where he (and we) can start to address deeper mysteries, not only about Alice, but about ourselves, and about identity in general. Why does Alice skip form life to life, completely reinventing herself each time? Is she searching for something? Running form something? Or is she merely adrift?

The film doesn't want to offer anything too specific by way of explanation, allowing Alice's disclosures to speak to us in our own individual ways. After all, is anyone that different? We all reinvent ourselves as we move through life's accustomed way stations: From child to adult; from single to partnered or married; from fancy-free to parenthood; from limitless in curiosity to office drone, artist, volunteer, or any other sort of vocation. We accept, without thinking about it, that such self-invention ceases right after college, or at the latest, at some point in our twenties. After that, one risks a plethora of dismissive slurs: "Perpetual student," "slacker," "burnout," all variations on the theme of "loser."

But what is the losers in life are the ones who turn away from a dazzling array of possibilities in the name of simplicity, or security, or conventionality? That's the subversive theme of the film, and while it doesn't let Alice off the hook -- in fact, it deliberately leads Tom to the precipice, where his limited participation in her free-form world could have disastrous consequences -- it does raise the question with complete sobriety, and doesn't just let it drop two minutes later.

The annals of con artists boast a few distinctive and colorful individuals who displayed ingenuity, if not downright brilliance, in reinventing themselves. Often, they did so for financial gain; here and there, however, larger implications arise. If a guy in his late twenties, for example, could bluff his way into an Ivy League school, where he shone as brightly as any young over-achiever, but his entree was contingent upon a cock-and-bull story or forged transcripts, then is he a villain? Or is he a whistleblower, pointing out the chicanery of elite institutions? Real life cases of the sort do exist. To some degree, there are probably thousands or millions of Alices out there, people who need a clean break and a fresh start, people who -- as Alice puts it herself -- start to feel that the problem isn't their own identity, but the identity others start to impose upon them.

All of that and more resides in this film, which Marston co-wrote with Julian Sheppard, but the result is not an essay. It's more like a poem. A jagged poem with broken rhythms, to be sure, something that catches you off guard and keeps you there, but at the same time a work of disconcerting potency. If we were simply to let go of our preconceptions regarding ourselves, who would we be? Anyone? No one? Someone who more closely resembles our wildest wishes? Or someone who embodies our starkest fears?

The beauty of such inquiries is that each question mark acts not as a stopping place, but a point of departure -- and a symbol indicating that, whatever comes next, you can't imagine or understand it until you go there.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.