One would assume that Joshua Marston’s Complete Unknown might elicit feelings of invigorated freedom – ASSUME, I repeat. At some point in our lives, we’ve all dreamt about starting over. Hitting the “Eject” button amidst our daily routine, and trying out a different lifestyle that could have been. This is the crux of Marston’s story (co-written by Julian Sheppard), but whatever message is trying to be conveyed (Being happy with one life? Not being afraid to start over somewhere else?) desperately gets lost in translation. Like, Sylvester Stallone trying to communicate with a Japanese businessman. Movies are supposed to make you feel something, but unfortunately, my screening ended with a sense of frustration, confusion and zero sympathetic charms – a deadly trifecta for any indie drama.
Michael Shannon stars as Tom, who’s about to spend the night celebrating his birthday with a group of close friends. They all gather at Tom’s apartment, but his buddy Clyde (Michael Chernus) brings a date who seems all-too familiar. Her name is Alice (Rachel Weisz), and Tom reacts to her presence like a ghost just walked in the room.
As the night goes on, Tom is tormented by her vision, along with the decision to abandon his job and move to California so his wife (Ramina, played by Azita Ghanizada) can attend a graduate program she’s already been accepted into. As expected, the party derails when Alice proves to be a fraud, only confirming Tom’s suspicions that his ex-girlfriend just walked back into his life after 15 years of radio silence. Happy birthday?
Fast-forwarding through all the exposition, there’s a much simpler – and less inviting – description of Complete Unknown. Something along the lines of, “Alice changes her identity whenever she wants, and walks out on people with no warning. She left Tom 15 years earlier, and is now back – pretending to be someone else – because she’s truly lonely (OR IS SHE?!). So, they continue their charade even after all the party guests attempt to escape, until the two ex-lovers ditch a posh NYC nightclub for a train to Long Island. Together. And then Tom just goes home, offers no explanation to his wife, and life moves on. The End!”
First of all, Weisz’ character creates no bond with audiences, be it a curiously sympathetic angle, or disapproval of her aggressively distasteful lifestyle. Alice uses people for her own pleasure, then whenever she can’t hold her lie anymore, she moves onto the next adventure. Eleven months as a Chinese magician’s assistant, time spent as a doctor, a stint as a Portland hipster – the world is her oyster, and fraudulent identification is her key to happiness! But you don’t like Alice, and that’s a problem. Her gross manipulation of power grows tiresome, as do her listless recountings of exotic lives past, all of which gloss over her chameleon-like thoughtlessness. Maybe we’re supposed to truly despise her, but that’s a whole other issue tied to Marston’s delivery – are we supposed to eventually find enchantment in her lifestyle, or always feel awkwardly distant?
Then there’s the Michael Shannon side of things, where Tom abandons his wife (without warning) and disappears for hours with the sociopathic mystery woman who just flat-out lied to everyone. Tom glances at his phone randomly to represent obvious messages from Ramina (or maybe Clyde?), but it’s never an issue. He’s transfixed by Alice’s free-wheeling ability to “embrace life,” saddened by his own inability to face change. Nadia’s dreams reside in California, but Tom still debates staying in NYC for a job he barely tolerates – BUT DON’T WORRY! Tom’s insane ex-lover is here to set things straight, with the help of clumsy Kathy Bates and Caribbean Danny Glover. And Tom avoids a major relationship breakdown after this how?
I get it. Complete Unknown is one of those alternative dramas that wades through provocative waters in search of meaning, but there’s no distinct path set for the film’s biggest theme. Relationships aren’t easy, yet nothing lasting is stated by a film that preaches fakeness and abandonment – even if that’s not Marston’s intention from the start. There’s an attempt to express life’s beauty through a “box of chocolates” like metaphor (so many flavors, try them all!), but the dynamic between Tom and Alice does nothing but distract given the exact scenario they’re playing out. Performances are fine – it’s the muddled, wishy-washy storytelling that presses on in weird, unsatisfying ways. Intent is the biggest question mark here, which never comes through in this unconventional rom-dram gone cold in the most lackluster of ways.
Complete Unknown is a weird rom-dram made up of characters we can barely tolerate, fighting tepidly for a message of positive growth - I think?