Documaker Rupert Murray’s unsettling mystery-of-the-mind movie, “Unknown White Male,” posits the simple notion that we are the sum of our memories. However, when those memories are lost — as experienced by Murray’s friend Doug Bruce –so too is our identity. Bruce’s efforts to retrace and recover his life after his memory loss contain all the drama and uncertainty of a fine psychological drama; chatter at Sundance of a dramatic feature remake was thus no surprise, and docu’s own theatrical potential is considerable, with DVD and all its extras providing even richer prospects.
Murray narrates in a classic BBC manner but with greater empathy; he plops auds down in Bruce’s life on July 3, 2003, in New York, when Bruce left his digs and took the subway to the end of the line at Coney Island. Arriving there, he had no clue who he was or what he was doing.
Police took Bruce to Coney Island hospital, where no medical cause could be found for his memory loss. Luckily, shards of notes in his backpack helped get him in touch with a woman, Nadine (whom he had recently dated) and Nadine’s mother, setting up the first phase of Bruce reconstructing his life.
It was hardly a life from which anyone might want to escape. Bruce, a 30-ish Brit with the dashing looks of a young Terrence Stamp, had made so much money as a stock broker that he had “retired,” and was pursuing a career in photography. He lives in a terrific East Village loft with pets and fine art. He has people who love him: ex-g.f. Magde flies back from Poland to take care of him in the early phase, and his dad and two sisters wait to greet him in Spain when he wings to meet them.
While some doctors tell Murray that Bruce’s condition is “unprecedented,” Harvard’s dean of psychology Daniel Schacter ponders all the possibilities from retrograde amnesia to “malingering” (not wanting to remember) to psychogenic amnesia-memory loss due to a psychological trauma. Nadine admits that some close to Bruce wonder if the whole matter wasn’t a scam on his part, and a rumor even floated at Sundance that docu itself is possibly a “Blair Witch” put-on — something emphatically denied by the filmmakers.
Bruce re-learns his family history and the terrible grief he endured at the time of his beloved mother’s death. Latter perhaps offers a clue to his condition, a kind of pressure cooker of stress and grief that finally exploded, but “Unknown White Male” concludes without a final diagnosis, even hinting that Bruce’s problem may have indeed been medical after all.
Under the surfaces of science and personal clues lies a wonder at rediscovering the world, which inspires Murray (and lenser Orlando Stuart, with post-production colorist Richard Shadick adding brilliant painterly effects) to layer pic with dazzling, abstracted visual motifs. The act of experiencing snow, fireworks and taste sensations anew make Bruce’s condition almost enviable: With an adult’s temperament, he can reconnect with life with a child’s enthusiasm.
Friends note Bruce’s personality changed from gregarious and cocky to contemplative, but old bonds are frayed since the things that linked them (sports, past life episodes) are no longer there. Ironically, this applies to Murray as well, but his pic on his old friend may become a new means of connection.