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In the deluge of tributes penned in the days following David Bowie’s death, some of the most moving were those suggesting that, despite his famous self-reinventions and stretches of living so hard they should leave a man forever altered, he retained an unchanged kernel of David Robert Jones within him until the day he died. This notion that identity can be both constant and endlessly mutable is at the heart of Complete Unknown, the third feature by Maria Full of Grace director Joshua Marston, in which Rachel Weisz plays a woman who (depending on your point of view) has either never stopped running from herself or made constant blank-slate changes in search of her fundamental truth. More provocative than satisfying, which is as it should be, the picture has a solid art house appeal enhanced by screen-consuming performances by two eminently watchable leads, Weisz and Michael Shannon.
How much can we truly understand another person? How well do we ever know ourselves? Weisz’s Alice raises questions most people don’t like to ask when she shows up to a dinner party hosted by Tom (Shannon) with one of his friends and, while getting to know all his other guests, admits that she once left her whole world behind on a whim, assuming a new identity in a foreign country and never going back to the old one. Some guests are fascinated, others offended. But Tom, who has been watching the stranger intensely all night, has neither response. He tells no one, but he knew Alice when she was Jenny.
The party grows uncomfortable, shifts locations to a dance club, and is made diffuse by shots and loud music. Tom and Jenny wind up alone on the street. And chance gives them a reason to leave without telling anyone, her introducing him to the thrill of assuming a new identity.
Shannon, an often intimidating actor who has made himself almost ordinary for this role, is playing a government functionary who’s torn between following through on a long-running work project and going with his wife to California to support her artistic pursuits. As he stares in amazement at Jenny, it’s not just because he’s seeing a girlfriend for the first time in 15 years and dying to understand what happened. It’s because part of him wonders if he could do what she did. Marston and Julian Sheppard’s screenplay gives Tom plenty of questions to ask Jenny; but the most interesting ones are on his face.
As Tom talks and Jenny responds, Weisz’s face conveys a need anyone can understand: for another person to ask the right question in the right way, to make the kind of inquiry that requires a certain kind of understanding before it can be asked. Waiting for that question, Jenny leads Tom into corners of her invented-from-scratch life and shows him marveling. A nagging voice inside the viewer’s head asks, Is Tom ever going to return his wife’s texts, and let her know where the guest of honor has gone?
The movie’s structure is peculiar, laying out a mystery and solving it early on, then spending half the film making us wonder how satisfying that solution was. In ways the pair’s odyssey recalls Richard Linklater’s Before films, with their examination of time’s effect on people who once knew each other intimately, or believed they did. But the lives these two have led are so very different, Jenny may as well have time-traveled a hundred years while Tom lived 10. The viewer might have a hard time imagining an ending that will be both satisfying and truthful; it seems the filmmakers shared that dilemma. Sometimes, perhaps, walking off without goodbyes is the best solution.
Production companies: Great Point Media, Parts & Labor
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Michael Chernus, Azita Ghanizada, Omar Metwally, Chris Lowell, Frank DeJulio, Condola Rashad, Danny Glover, Kathy Bates
Director: Joshua Marston
Screenwriters: Joshua Marston, Julian Sheppard
Producers: Lucas Joaquin, Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen
Executive producers: Robert Halmi, Jr., Jim Reeve
Director of photography: Christos Voudouris
Production designer: Tommaso Ortino
Costume designer: Ciera Wells
Editor: Malcolm Jamieson
Composers: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Casting director: Billy Hopkins
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
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