Sundance Film Review: ‘Complete Unknown’

Rachel Weisz is a woman of many guises in Joshua Marston's academic but intriguing study of mutable identity.

Complete Unknown Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

The lyrical reference slyly buried in the title of Joshua Marston’s “Complete Unknown” suggests the film might be a response to the question posed by Bob Dylan: How does it feel to be like a rolling stone? If so, this chic, cryptic identity drama has few clear answers, merely scratching the surface of its heroine’s cool-blooded existential restlessness. After a tantalizing pre-credit sequence teases the tumbling plethora of forms assumed by Rachel Weisz’s fascinating femme fatale, the compact puzzler that ensues scrutinizes only one of them, pitting her in an elegant but elusive dialogue with Michael Shannon’s bemused onlooker. A most surprising change of pace from Marston, following the international social realism of “Maria Full of Grace” and “The Forgiveness of Blood,” this Amazon Studios acquisition might find only a select audience, but could usher in a glossier phase of its helmer’s career.

Magazine trend pieces have recently espoused the virtues of “off-the-grid” living, at a time when evolved cellular and online technology, not to mention our culture’s growing dependence on social media, have placed a premium on unqualified privacy or even fleeting anonymity. Though it’s not any kind of issue drama, “Complete Unknown” could be viewed as a parable for this modern societal nirvana — thankfully, minus a moral conclusion on the virtues or otherwise of its protagonist’s arguably sociopathic stringlessness. Are there limits to the autonomy we can (or should) have over our individual identities? Can one be true to oneself by being someone else entirely? These are the questions that will rattle viewers via Marston and co-writer Julian Sheppard’s neat, talky screenplay — the American director’s first to be spoken in English. If it all finally amounts to a slightly academic anatomy of an idea, it’s a killer idea all the same.

Edited with dreamy fluidity, an oblique pre-credit sequence initially suggests this may be a mystery of Shane Carruthian proportions. Weisz’s character — if, indeed, she can be said to play just one — is introduced in a shuffling variety of guises, from hippy-dippy adult student to sleekly coiffed magician’s assistant, before becoming submerged in a spin-cycle of ocean waves. The truth is less surreal than it appears, if hardly less strange: Alice, as she calls herself for most of the film, has been in an amorphous state of identity for 15 years, casually shedding incarnations and attachments without a backward glance.

Well, almost without. Cut to the decidedly more streamlined life of Tom (Michael Shannon), a tightly wound government official living comfortably in Brooklyn with his jewelry-designer wife Rehema (Azita Ghanizada), and celebrating his birthday with an intimate gathering of friends and co-workers. One guest brings a date in the glamorously black-clad form of Alice, who immediately delights the party with her wit, smarts and offbeat anecdotes of far-flung biological research in Tasmania. The only one quietly unenchanted is Tom, and with good reason — for he knew Alice when she was Jenny, and they were lovers.

Marston unpacks this vital information far earlier and less ceremoniously than the film’s shadowy, secretive tone might lead auds to expect. The central mystery of “Complete Unknown,” it turns out, is not who or what Alice/Jenny is, but why she is that way; as the party decamps to a fashionable low-lit nightclub, Tom seizes the opportunity to privately confront this ravishing revenant, and revisit a past that she has blithely disowned. The long, spiraling conversation that follows largely consumes the film, like a high-concept rewrite of the unforgettable peep-show memory purge in Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas.” But the tension of seduction also charges their bittersweet exchange of narratives, as Tom himself — via a spontaneous street encounter with a chatty late-night stroller (Kathy Bates) — is exposed to the thrill of newly imagined selfhood.

“Complete Unknown” thus hinges heavily on the persuasive powers of everyday performance. After all, how often do we modify our identities to others, even when presenting as ourselves? Luxuriously conversational in structure, it would make an outstanding stage play, and the two stars play it with chamber-piece rigor: As also demonstrated in “The Deep Blue Sea” and “The Constant Gardener,” Weisz is often at her best playing women of evasive will and desire, and she does clever work here — even bending and interrupting her own accent — with a needfully frustrating character who emerges only through the elimination of other personae. That does not, inevitably, leave much of a person, as Marston’s story skates on the edge of very finely conditioned shaggy-dog territory. Virtues of intelligent economy notwithstanding, one almost wishes for a messier sprawl across Alice’s many states of mind and being.

Below-the-line contributions are as studied and refined as everything else here. Greek d.p. Christos Voudouris (“Alps,” “Before Midnight”) identifies a brittle chill even in the red glow of New York’s nightspots, while costume designer Ciera Wells subtly varies color, fabric and silhouette to keep Alice’s self-styled selves in constant flux.

Sundance Film Review: ‘Complete Unknown’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 25, 2016. Running time: <strong>91 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: An Amazon Studios presentation in association with Great Point Media, Parts & Labor. (International sales: CAA, Los Angeles.) Produced by Lucas Joaquin, Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen. Executive producers, Robert Halmi Jr., Jim Reeve. Co-producer, Jonathan Montepare.
  • Crew: Directed by Joshua Marston. Screenplay, Marston, Julian Sheppard. Camera (color, widescreen, Arri Alexa), Christos Voudouris; editor, Malcolm Jamieson; music, Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans; music supervisor, Lynn Fainchtein; production designer, Tommaso Ortino; art director, Seth Williamson; set decorator, Philippa J. Witheron-Culpepper; costume designer, Ciera Wells; sound, Jim Morgan; supervising sound editors, Tom Efinger, Abigail Savage; re-recording mixer, Efinger; assistant director, Brad Robinson; casting, Billy Hopkins.
  • With: Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Michael Chernus, Azita Ghanizada, Omar Metwally, Chris Lowell, Frank DeJulio, Condola Rashad, Danny Glover, Kathy Bates.