Director: Joshua Marston
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates, Danny Glover, and Azita Ghanizada
Nobody likes a liar. I once worked at a resort and it was fairly common to have people make reservations with an alias. Some people chose famous names while others would make up something ridiculous. When I asked one of the veteran managers if this behavior was common they replied simply with “people like to play pretend”.
This behavior, in director Joshua Marston’s dramatic tale, is much more dedicated from a woman who consistently reinvents herself into a different person. “Complete Unknown” is a shape-shifting story that takes a look at the lies people tell themselves and one another on a daily basis, it’s about the consuming regrets that push people, and it’s also about the journey some people venture on to find their place in this complicated world.
It’s Tom’s (Michael Shannon) birthday and he is having a dinner party with some close friends. One of his co-workers invites a girl named Alice (Rachel Weisz) to the party. Tom is uneasy the entire time, almost annoyed at the presence of Alice to the point of asking near threatening questions. As events transpire to a night of dancing Tom becomes more agitated with Alice, prompting her to leave the dance club with Tom in pursuit. What follows is an encounter between two people searching for answers to questions neither are ready to accept.
At the core of “Complete Unknown” is a character study vaguely disguised as a thriller. Though at times some of the filmmaking techniques try to compose a mystery, such as the foreboding photography and ominous composition notes, this film is more concerned with watching two people analyze and understand one another. In this regard, and with the help of two exceptional performers, Mr. Marston offers some interesting moments.
The depiction of Alice is fascinating and frustrating at times. Alice is a mysterious woman who changes her identity every few years in search of new beginnings. However, with these constant changes comes an underlying hope that she will find a life that ultimately makes her happy. Tom is a married man living with regret, pushed forward into a life that he is unsure about. Place these two characters in the same space, exposing a secret they both share, and you have moments of drama filled with many different emotions. Mr. Shannon and Ms. Weisz hold many of these competing elements together; they have an unusual chemistry that works in assisting the unraveling motivations each encounter with one another.
Mr. Shannon, with his stern demeanor, says more with his body language and eye glares than any line of dialog could possibly convey. From the moment Alice walks into the room you can feel Tom’s changing temperament, Mr. Shannon is always a pleasure to watch. Ms. Weisz, with her steadfast commitment to embodying a lie, provides a nuanced portrayal that makes it difficult to detect what parts of her story are truthful, exaggerated, or simply made up. Ms. Weisz pulls everything off with ease.
It’s unfortunate that the good pieces that compose the story don’t always add up cohesively when played from scene to scene. Part of this comes from the unnecessary need to build a mystery and the attempt to make it feel like a thriller. There are quite a few scenes that linger pointlessly while other scenes feel out of place, specifically one scene with some very good actors involved. There are times when you get a sense of what the director may be trying to express, the apathy of life that would make lying exciting or the mundaneness that influences the pieces of life between the memorable moments. Or maybe it’s something completely different? Nothing is straightforwardly expressed.
“Complete Unknown” is an ambiguous story that unfortunately never becomes as compelling as the subject matter may entice. While the performances are great, the film never proposes any kind of purpose and unfortunately becomes the character it creates, a shape-shifter that is never sure what it wants to be.
2.75 out of 5.00