‘Complete Unknown’ Deals in Ambiguity and Subtle Charms

Joshua Marston's thoughtful indie drama is delicate, ambiguous, and sublimely frustrating.

It has been said that the universe created human beings so that it might know itself. How human beings come to know themselves is an even more nebulous matter. The new indie drama Complete Unknown doesn’t provide any answers, but it suggests there’s more than one way to find yourself. Director Joshua Marston’s musings on existential world-building are delicate, observant, and sublimely frustrating. Punctuated by exquisite performances and quirky energy, Complete Unknown is an atmospheric indie that unfolds on its own terms.

About 15 years ago, Jenny (Rachel Weisz) and Tom (Michael Shannon) had one of those soulful college flings that feels like it will last forever. Imagine Tom’s shock, then, when Jenny abruptly disappeared from the face of the Earth. No phone calls, no emails, no postcards… just complete radio silence.

Grudgingly, Tom moved on with his life. He married a beautiful Farsi girl named Ramina (Azita Ghanizada), moved into his parent’s stately home, and settled into a tedious government job dedicated to passing an unpassable Land Reform Bill. He’s the epitome of steady and reliable. In other words, Tom’s boring as hell.

Even his birthday party is boring. His erudite friends chat about First World Problems as they sip outrageously expensive wine. The most exciting part of the evening is a mislabeled cake wishing “Tony” a Happy Birthday. That is, until a strangely familiar woman calling herself Alice stumbles into the party. Tom recognizes her immediately… It’s Jenny.

It seems Jenny has spent the last 15 years fabricating, occupying, and eventually abandoning new identities. Whether she’s serving as a magician’s assistant in China or studying a rare species of frog on Long Island, Jenny creates personae so convincing that even she seems to be fooled.

“I realized I could be anyone I wanted,” she confides to an understandably perplexed Tom.

It’s not a simple matter of wardrobe changes and trendy new haircuts; Jenny painstakingly researches and forges the necessary accoutrements to become a new person. Part of the engrossing power that drives Complete Unknown is director Marston’s (Maria Full of Grace [2004]) refusal to judge his troubled huckster. He, like Tom (and the entire audience), is fascinated by the minutiae of re-invention.

Much like the impenetrable but curious protagonist in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Tom undertakes an ill-advised nightlong journey into the abyss. It’s a voyeuristic treat to tag along with a chameleon like Jenny, who satisfies our natural curiosity about disappearing into an exciting new identity. In fact, were it not for Tom’s unyielding dedication to order and responsibility, Marston’s film might have devolved into a pointless exercise in wish fulfillment.

Tom is so driven that he can’t even sit down while he eats his lunch. He probably had visions of white picket fences and newspaper routes before he could crawl. Marston and his co-writer Julian Sheppard understand that Tom’s humdrum existence is an alluring trap. It’s the American Dream perverted into the New-Millennium fantasy that life, love, and work can all peacefully coexist with a minimum of insanity.

As Tom grows more accustomed to Jenny’s gambit, even pretending at one point to be an osteopathic surgeon himself, he realizes that his carefully constructed life is a meticulous diversion from living. Jenny may be bat-shit crazy, but she’s alive, and Tom (re)connects with that energy like a power-starved Christmas toy.

Still, Complete Unknown stops short of glamorizing Jenny’s unbalanced mentality towards life. In a montage recalling her previous nine lives (a knowing nod to our hardy feline friends), Weisz conveys an unmistakable sense of sadness, even as she recalls the happiness of recreating herself. Indeed, her surprise visit to Tom is fueled by her need to, “See someone who knew me.” Jenny needs to reconnect with a trusted soul from her past; a reminder that she is still her beneath all the different guises.

It’s this reluctance to take a side with either the steadfast Tom or the mysterious Jenny that will likely frustrate many viewers. Complete Unknown adopts a non-committal, dreamlike quality that lures you into a false sense of nothingness. There are no resolutions or mountains of backstory; just an atmospheric exploration of how recklessness and repression can find a happy medium, if only for one night.

Weisz and Shannon give Oscar-worthy performances. Each gets multiple opportunities to shine, with Weisz proving particularly adept at being elusive and yet transparent at the same time. When she’s finally trapped in her own web, Jenny’s refusal to panic is almost as impressive as the lies she’s been spinning. Shannon continues to shine as one of America’s best actors. His dry wit and stone jaw are perfect for this uptight lug who can’t figure out if Jenny is a genius or a psychopath. Surprisingly, the only false casting notes come from veterans Kathy Bates and Danny Glover, who feel distractingly out of place in their tiny supporting roles.

Ultimately, your response to Complete Unknown will depend upon your appreciation for ambiguity and subtle charms. There’s nothing splashy to see here, just an awkward evening with two extremely interesting people. Thanks to the assured direction of Marston and the nuanced performances of Weisz and Shannon, that’s more than enough to warrant a look.

RATING 7 / 10
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