Joshua Marston’s Complete Unknown is, in part, a film with a stellar cast and an inventive premise about the constraints and fluidity of identity. It also falls short of offering the kind of in-depth exploration of our modern selves that it promises. Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Azita Ghanizada and Kathy Bates deliver acting worthy of their caliber, but the feature’s contrived writing ultimately stilts their performances. Even such talent cannot overcome the limitations of an intriguing concept that fails to nail its execution.
Weisz’s character is a shape-shifter who reappears in an old flame’s life after years of absence, and in a newly incarnated identity. This is the crux of the story — Alice (Weisz) sheds identities and their bureaucratic trappings like old skins and moves on to the next one, over and over. And this secret is revealed unceremoniously through dialogue. In the pejorative sense, I think of Complete Unknown as a “talkie.” Spiraling conversation, as in classic adaptations of Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee, is not without its appeal, but Marston’s film does not reach the heady heights of excruciating verbal reasoning found in the aforementioned pictures. Rather, the dialogue uncovers the mystery of the story and, as in The Wizard of Oz, there’s another ordinary man — or, in this case, a woman — behind the curtain. It is not that Weisz’s Alice is typical, by any means. She just engages in these self-enacted reincarnations for the thrill of change itself, and without substantial plot motivation.
Complete Unknown’s beginning shows promise, though. The opening montage introduces a number of Alice’s avatars in a non-linear sequence without resorting to an explanatory voiceover. And this effectively shrouds the character in intrigue, even if the out of focus title sequence (blurring the outline of the protagonist walking the beach beneath the words “Complete Unknown”) is a bit heavy handed. The exposition still succeeds in establishing Alice’s appeal and why she takes on so many different appearances. Like a marathon runner starting strong and losing steam, however, the film defuses the aura of enigma surrounding Alice by having its characters say too much and do too little.
And it is unfortunate that the narrative following a woman who lives to live many lives unravels, because Complete Unknown seems to have its finger on the pulse of something characteristic of our FOMO culture. It betrays the apprehension that — even as our lives and identities are more shared and documented than ever on social media and accessible through the cloud — there is a fear that we are not experiencing enough, that we are trapped by our own image, our profile information or by identity’s limits. Even if this new cultural situation is barely acknowledged by the film, Alice attempts to escape it with a scrapbook of old-school paper photographs and shredded credit cards. Perhaps it is ironic, then, that the film will reach its widest audience through Amazon’s streaming service. The tech distributor giant will undoubtedly suggest it for our viewing pleasure if its metadata following our viewing preferences suggests that we might enjoy it.
Aaron Boalick (@FlixCritic) is a freelance film critic in New York City and Adjunct Faculty in the Film Division of Columbia University.