Mark Reviews Movies

Complete Unknown


1 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Joshua Marston

Cast: Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Azita Ghanizada, Michael Chernus, Kathy Bates, Danny Glover, Chris Lowell, Condola Rashad, Erin Darke, Charlie Hudson III

MPAA Rating: R (for some language)

Running Time: 1:30

Release Date: 8/26/16 (limited); 9/9/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 8, 2016

Here's a movie with an intriguing premise that doesn't know what to do with it. One can sense the air draining from director Joshua Marston and Julian Sheppard's screenplay as soon as the truth behind the story's enigma of a central character is exposed. Complete Unknown either reveals that truth too early or goes on far too long after the revelation. It feels like the idea for a short that inexplicably has been drawn out to feature length.

The setup is thus: Tom (Michael Shannon) is having a birthday party with his wife Ramina (Azita Ghanizada) and some close friends. His friend and co-worker Clyde (Michael Chernus) uses the party as an opportunity to introduce his pals to a new woman in his life. They met at the office cafeteria, and even though she says this budding relationship is only a friendship, Clyde is quite smitten with this woman.

We meet the woman before anyone else in the story. To make things easier, let's call her Alice, although we come to learn that she has had many names. Alice is played by Rachel Weisz, who is—not to put too fine a point on it—the sort of woman who would engender such instant affection in any man, let alone the sort of anonymously ordinary guy that Clyde is.

In the opening montage, we see Weisz in an assortment of outfits, hairstyles, and makeup while going through a series of different lives. In one short scene, the character is dressed as some kind of neo-hippie while apartment shopping. In another, she's performing life-saving medical procedures on a man in an emergency room. In yet another, she is entering a box on a stage and disappearing through a trap door at the command of a Chinese magician. The whole sequence ends on a dour note, as this woman sits at piano—a tear falling from her eye.

The mystery here is so obvious that it seems almost pointless to put it into words. Here it is anyway: Who, really, is this woman, and why is she showing up in all of these different places as ostensibly different people?

The answer is far more mundane than the flights of our imagination could create, so for the moment, let's return to Tom before the puzzle is completed. He works a boring job at an environmental organization, where most of his duties pertain to writing emails. He's in the middle of a difficult decision involving his marriage. Ramina wants to attend school across the country to hone her trade of crafting jewelry, and he is too settled in his life to move.

After some awkward encounters between Tom and the mystery woman at the party, Alice reveals her past. She has been moving around the globe, changing her identity whenever she becomes bored with her life. The important thing is that Tom knew her before this trend began, and Alice has set up her newest identity as a way to get close to him.

There are a multitude of ways this premise—of an ever-changing woman returning to a figure from a past before those changes—could go. Marston and Sheppard decide on none of them. Basically, Tom and Alice wander the streets, meet an older married couple (played by Kathy Bates and Danny Glover), and visit a bog to see some rare frogs.

They talk, but their conversations are circular dead ends because these characters are also dead ends. Tom can't receive any answers beyond her vague rationale for undergoing these changes, because Alice really doesn't know why she does it beyond those sketchy reasons. They can't wax nostalgic, because Alice doesn't want to revisit her past. Whatever new information he can give about the people from her past is rejected, because Alice doesn't care anymore.

The scene with the older couple has the spark of life to it, as Alice puts Tom in a situation where he has to pretend to be someone else. There's nowhere that can go, either, because Tom is stubbornly set in his ways. During his time with Alice, those ways are entirely about finding answers to her lifestyle, and that brings us right back to the beginning of this conundrum again.

Around and around it goes, filled with pauses that would make Pinter check his watch (The movie ends in the middle of such a pause, making it an infinite one in a way). There's a lot unspoken in Complete Unknown, and while Weisz and Shannon are both confident and competent in filling those silences with loaded looks that at least appear to mean something, there's ultimately very little behind them—and the movie itself, for that matter.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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