Movie Review: COMPLETE UNKNOWN’s intriguing premise collapses within its own mystery


James Cole Clay // Film Critic

Director:Joshua Marston
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates, Danny Glover and Azita Ghanizada

The older we get, the more difficult it is to reinvent ourselves. Our experiences shape who we are, who we date, where we work and the advice we grew up on. But every once in awhile there are chances to step out of the frame of the day to day and become another person. The trick is not to get immersed in the fantasy created.

Filmmaker Joshua Marston has had his hand in a number of notable television shows, such as THE NEWSROOM and AMERICAN CRIME, along with dramas like 2004’s MARIA FULL OF GRACE. With his latest film, COMPLETE UNKNOWN, Marston takes this idea of being someone else and personifies in the form of a possible sociopath named Alice Manning (Rachel Weisz).

In the film, Alice has reentered the life of her former flame Tom (Michael Shannon) under false pretenses on his birthday. While the mystery of the film never progresses more than the intrigue of possibly rekindling their relationship, Marston and fellow first-time screenwriter Julian Sheppard focus on the notion of never really closing the book on long, lost love.

Shannon (MIDNIGHT SPECIAL) is a master of his craft, excelling in the portrayal of Tom’s discomfort with the former lover barging into his life as he is about to make a difficult decision of whether to move cross-country with his wife for two years, or stay in New York City to focus on his academic research.

 Rachel Weisz is Alice Manning, an identity changing woman. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Rachel Weisz is Alice Manning, an identity changing woman. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

While Weisz has played a chameleon of sorts before in THE BROTHER’S BLOOM, she becomes a seemingly benign sociopath who doesn’t realize the impact and hurt she’s invoking on the people she meets around the world. While she does use and abuse the ones around her, Alice plays up her puppy dog eyes to become completely unsuspecting. For 11 months she was a magician’s assistant in China, for two years she studied frogs in Tasmania, and, at one point, became a hippie botanist in Portland, Oregon.

While this is all fascinating and the quiet tone sets a relaxing mood that’s menacing at times, the outcome never grows into anything more than a hollow example of psychology in film. We never get a sense of Weisz’s motivations to transform. The film’s most distinguished lesson goes as follows: It doesn’t matter where we are– as the film says, “anywhere you go, there you’ll be.” But there’s never an example of how this has shaped the two central characters, and maybe that’s the whole point.

Tom depart from Alice’s deceptive ways, even though he has a smart, talented and beautiful wife (Azita Ghanizada) at home. But figuring out a mystery is like a moth to flame; it’s part of the human condition. We begin to realize even if Tom gets the closure he deserves, the enigma of Alice will never be solved because she has yet to discover herself. This universal theme rings true for most of the film, yet never leaves any lingering questions for us to ponder, nor offers any resolution.

COMPLETE UNKNOWN is an acting showcase for the two leads as well (as extended cameos from Kathy Bates and Danny Glover). The central theme of recreation wanders about in its own duplicity, without fully satisfying or discovering its own identity.

COMPLETE UNKNOWN opens in limited release on Friday, September 2.

About author

James C. Clay

James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.