Complete Unknown (2016)
Directed by: Joshua Marston | 91 minutes | drama, thriller | Actors: Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates, Danny Glover, Chris Lowell, Erin Darke, Michael Chernus, Azita Ghanizada, Omar Metwally, Frank De Julio, Condola Rashad, Tessa Albertson, Kelly AuCoin, Blake DeLong
With ‘Maria Full of Grace’ (2004), filmmaker Joshua Marston – just like the lead actress in that film, Catalina Sandino Moreno, by the way – made a stunning debut. The film, about a pregnant Colombian teenager so desperate that she embarks on a career as a drug smuggler in hopes of making life a little more bearable for her family, has received rave reviews and has won numerous international awards. “After about a year on that movie, I realized it wasn’t just about a girl who lived far away, but it was a movie about a girl who did something universal by finding out what made her sense. is life,” Marston explains the success of ‘Maria Full of Grace’. This search for the meaning of life is a theme that continues to appeal to him, because in ‘Complete Unknown’ (2016) he also plays with that motif: what drives a person to do what he or she does? Despite the presence of top class performers like Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon and Kathy Bates, ‘Complete Unknown’ remains vague in its intentions and works towards a climax that never comes.
Weisz plays a biologist who calls herself Alice Manning, but the viewer has already seen in a montage during the first minutes of the film that this is just one of the many guises she takes. She invents a new character, takes that role and lives that way for some time until she has had enough or the situation calls for her to take on another form. She has been doing this for fifteen years. It took her to different countries, where she practiced various professions: from first aid doctor to environmental activist and from music student to part of a circus act. Now, after years, she is back in her old hometown, as it turns out later in the hope of a reunion with an old acquaintance. Clyde (Michael Chernus), an acquaintance, invites her to his good friend Tom (Michael Shannon’s) birthday party. He immediately recognizes her as his former love Jenny, who left fifteen years ago without giving any explanation. At first she pretends she doesn’t recognize him, perhaps to mislead the other guests at the party. But once the two have a moment alone, she admits who she really is. The party moves to a nightclub and it soon becomes apparent that Alice is not who she says she is. When the ground under her feet gets too hot, Alice flees outside. In her wake, Tom goes with her. Because no matter how much she has hurt him, he is fascinated by her, by her way of life – from one form to another – and wants to see for himself how she works.
Something strange is going on with ‘Complete Unknown’: the mystery surrounding Alice is already unraveled in the first act. The tension and sting is pulled out of the story. What follows is a nocturnal walk where Tom – and the viewer with him – tries in vain to figure out why Alice/Jenny does what she does. In a spontaneous get-together with an older couple (Kathy Bates and Danny Glover in thankless bits), she pulls him into her game for a while, to give him a taste of what her ‘way of life’ is all about. Is it something for him too? Rachel Weisz is a great actress, who gets along just fine with mysterious types, but this Alice/Jenny is the superlative of mysterious; she’s an enigma. What drives her, how did she become like this? This woman raises a laundry list of questions. You always hope to have become a little wiser after such a film, but ‘Complete Unknown’ leaves us completely in the dark, which gives us an unsatisfied feeling. Because she is and remains so elusive, we cannot muster empathy for her, no matter how charming and convincing Weisz portrays her.
It’s easier for the viewer to empathize with Michael Shannon’s character. Tom is a man who thought he had his life on track, but due to the unexpected reunion with his ex, the dissatisfaction with his work and the dilemma his wife Rahima (Azita Ghanizada) presents him, suddenly nothing is certain anymore. How tempting is it to take on a completely new guise and leave everything else behind? Tom plays with the idea, but isn’t the type to run away. It may take some getting used to seeing Shannon in the role of the ‘straight guy’, as he often plays psychopaths and scum. Almost like expecting another nervous breakdown to come. But the film continues to wander aimlessly until the end credits. With such fantastic actors in the ranks and a fascinating theme that offers plenty of potential, you can only conclude that Marston and his fellow screenwriter Julian Sheppard have not managed to get the most out of their film. ‘Complete Unknown’ could have been a fascinating mystery, but is now mainly a long-winded sequence of missed opportunities.