The always lovely and stunningly talented Rachel Weisz plays an elusive, mysterious former flame of Tom's (Michael Shannon) who appears at his birthday dinner party after disappearing years before. Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace) directs his first English language film expanding on the fantasy many of us have of breaking away and what is required to inhabit such an existence.
Marston (who also co-wrote the film) elucidates an intriguing premise from the beginning, showing the chameleon life Weisz has lived, inhabiting different ideals, personalities, and even accents. Indeed, the film evolves as much as Weisz does, not so much evading characterization but slipping into genre skins with ease before leaving them behind again, having stages as an art film, a screwball comedy, and even a drama akin to Linklater's Before trilogy. As great as the writing is, it's really Weisz that makes it possible, embodying the enigmatic woman from Tom's past, but also evincing an intelligence that makes it all possible. Tom is on the opposite spectrum of this as a man celebrating (so to speak) his birthday, hopeful or desperate that his life is just short of achieving greatness even as he holds on to a stasis. Despite being so different, they're both relatable characters, voicing fears we have of what it means to persistently pursue a course set long before we understood it.
Marston does some intimate work with his camera even as the lens keeps Weisz at a distance, rarely framed fully and often through a barrier such as the window of a door. Some of the most beautiful visual work happens as Weisz narrates her life and Marston juxtaposes her voice with images of her past that directly contradict her words. There's a fluidity to the editing that familiarizes us to the cast of Weisz' characters without getting confused. Furthermore, there's a dreamlike quality to the film, reminding one of Shane Carruth at times with its cuts and fleeting luminous images.
We've all had an inkling or a desire, however slight, of leaving everything behind us to start afresh, but have rarely thought about what it means as a person to be able to do that consistently or easily. So much of who we are can be defined by how others see us, which is perhaps why Weisz' character turns up in Tom's life again.
I've always been a fan of films and stories that know not to give you everything. As much as I wanted to live with the characters more, the film doesn't need any more than it has. Despite the title, Complete Unknown doesn't leave us with nothing however. It just gives us enough to ruminate long afterwards about our own identities. Although Complete Unknown hasn't found a wide release yet, it looks as if it will be distributed by Amazon Studios before long. Please go see it when it does.
*I saw Goksung a few days after Complete Unknown, which was a great follow-up in terms of reaffirming my desire to write about film again.