In a landscape where most movies scream for your attention with extensive explosions and blaring music for most of their running times, Complete Unknown goes in the opposite direction and keeps things minimalist and quiet. When something is quiet, the intention is usually to make you pay attention to what it has to say when it says it, but Joshua Marston’s pithy examination of the concept of identity adds little to the conversation.
It is not that the film offers too little actual conversation. On the contrary, the only thing the characters do for the first-third of the piece is talk in hushed tones and give backstory. However, when the conceit of a guest telling the people she meets at a birthday party how she reinvented herself 15 years earlier actually comes home to roost, the film only spins its wheels for another hour without taking things anywhere interesting.
Michael Shannon portrays a frustrated scientific researcher at odds with his wife over her potential career move of leaving New York to improve her jewelry making skills in California. The always-alluring Rachel Weisz embodies an enigmatic guest invited to his birthday party by a work colleague, quickly becoming the center of conversation when she informs the others she discarded her past 15 years earlier during a trip to Mexico and started life anew under a new name and purpose. Shannon’s character, who had a relationship with this woman before (I won’t spoil exactly how he knows her), confronts her about the lost time as he contemplates his own future.
The performances are understated, and that’s fine. However, having seen the principals perform so much better in other films, I wanted them to shine here. Instead, they simply move from conversation to conversation saying their lines without ever showing much emotion other than repression and surface curiosity. There is an interesting twist later in the movie involving an encounter with an elderly couple (Kathy Bates and Danny Glover), as well as a thematic digression revolving around the night songs of frogs native to Long Island. Still, when the credits rolled, I found myself wishing something meaningful had actually happened to any of the characters involved.
Rope (1948), Gosford Park (2001) and The Last Supper (1995) all provided dinner conversations that held the audience’s attention (though, to be fair, those films had murders mystery to solve), and even My Dinner with Andre (1981) showed how idle chat over a meal can be stimulating and insightful as long as what is exchanged moves the discussion in an interesting direction. Complete Unknown never really gets beyond its initial topic of reinventing identity.
As you would expect, the mystery of the woman’s choice to adopt new personas is explained, but the audience only gets fleeting glimpses of who she became under each of those guises and never really learns who she was before, who she became each time or who she wants to be now — other than through superficial costuming and cosmetic choices. Instead of being a full-length feature, this story would have been better served as a short subject. Even at 90 minutes, Complete Unknown took way too long to set up and execute its tale, and the result left this reviewer completely unimpressed. Rated R for some language.
Now playing at Fine Arts Theatre