NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival. Complete Unknown opens August 26th, in DC on September 2nd.
The brilliance of Joshua Marston's first two features, Maria Full of Grace and the vastly underrated The Forgiveness of Blood is that they took the viewer into lives none of us will ever experience. His latest feature, the monotonous Complete Unknown, has all of the tools to do the same but never takes us anywhere. Instead it leaves nothing but a trail of missed opportunities in its wake.
It's hard to screw up a combination like Rachel Weisz and Michael Shannon, but Marston has figured out the best way to do it. The answer is to give them absolutely nothing to do, and while they are both charismatic, visually appealing people watching them struggle through thin characters grows tiresome. The premise is fantastic, though, which is another reason to be let down. Weisz plays Alice, a woman who has done what most of us wish. She has dropped everything from her life, all of the personal emotional baggage that slows us down, and taken on a new identity. Multiples identities. She can be whoever she wants and do whatever she wants, becoming anybody at the drop of a hat.
Shannon plays Tom, a married man in New York City living an unexciting life, but all of that changes when Alice walks into his birthday party. He recognizes her from his past, but as someone else. Within minutes the guests have begun unraveling her story, which begs the question how she has been able to pull this off for so long? Tom is intrigued, however, and after a flat, overlong conversation he leaves the party with her to see what life is like for someone with no attachments.
Marston misses an opportunity to take the story in a compelling direction at this point, but it's like his screenplay is forever stuck in neutral. Alice begins trying to sway Tom to run away with her and live as she does, free of constraints and entanglements. At one point they have a bit of devious fun at the expense of an older couple (played by Danny Glover and Kathy Bates), and for a moment you think Marston is going to really explore how a person like Alice comes to exist. What are the forces that made her choose this life? But nothing ever happens, and as a result we have no connection with her. She comes across as utterly ridiculous, with Marston's screenplay incapable of making sense of who Alice is. She should be mysterious, not ludicrous. Tom is similarly ill-defined, and we don't care if he leaves his unexciting marriage for a life with Alice. Ironically, for a movie that's all about identity Complete Unknown fails to develop one that is worth getting invested in.
Rating: 1 out of 5