“Complete Unknown” is something of a conundrum, a movie that seeks to know a woman (Rachel Weisz) we can’t really know because her life’s work as a serial identity changer has been all about being someone else. If that sounds like an opaque experience, well, exactly, because Weisz’s character is deliberately written as someone withholding her real self from everyone around her, even when she ends up in the presence of someone who knows her way from back when. She is not changing identities because she’s running from the law, or because some nefarious character is after her, or even because, like The Great Gatsby himself, it is the means to a particular end. No, she simply likes sliding into other lives. And if “Complete Unknown” never gets to the bottom of exactly who she is, that is because she will not allow it to. If you are the kind of viewer who fancies movies and their characters as puzzles to solve, suffice to say this one might leave you feeling frustrated. I rather fancied it.
After a crisply editing opening sequence, in which see this mystery woman cycle through various personas, from a trauma doctor to a magician’s assistant, we settle into the present, where, going by the name Alice, she has returned from Tasmania having done research on a new frog species, which she uses to essentially engineer a romantic meeting with Clyde (Michael Chernus), some sort of vaguely defined government official. And Weisz plays this sequence like she played her character in “Confidence” running a con on a portly banking vice president, smiling too widely, laughing too hard at Clyde’s bad jokes. Clyde is smitten, of course, inviting her along to the birthday party of his semi-tightly wound associate Tom (Michael Shannon), whose wife Ramina (Azita Ghanizada) has just announced that she has been accepted into a California school. If this feels conspicuously like a story turn meant to set up a Decision That Will Have To Be Made, well, Shannon still plays the moments with an effectively unfair resentment. His character has just had a breakthrough at work and so how can he be expected to adjust for her?
The ensuing birthday party is an electrifying sequence as Weisz allows Alice to wring immense pleasure in owning the room, wrapping everyone around her finger. Everyone, that is, except for Tom, of whom Alice steals telling little side-eyed glances, while he can barely mask a gruff awkwardness around her that suggests all is not as it seems. Eventually, in a moment alone, the truth emerges – they had an affair 15 years early, when she was “Jenny”. What transpires then, as Tom is suddenly forced to confront this person from his past who is masquerading as someone else, becomes an all night walk and talk, where she tries to impart the virtues of her strange existence.
This is evoked best in a sequence with an old married couple (Kathy Bates and Danny Glover) whom our central couple meets by chance. If the genesis of the scene feels forced, the interaction comes across natural and delightful, as Alice, or Jenny, or whoever, forces Tom into a role-playing exercise where he masquerades as a doctor. If Shannon purposely refuses to allow his character’s innate disposition to change in these moments, he still conveys in his matter-of-fact willingness to go along with the charade, that yes, maybe acting like someone else can be a kick, and dammit.
And as the evening progresses, the film’s focus moves just as much from “Alice” to Tom, a character whose introductory scenes about firing off emails regarding “fall grazing trends” do not factor into the plot in any substantial way other than to make our eyes and his eyes glaze over. After all, he admits his entire job basically boils down to sending emails, what fun, and while in that moment we are expressly made to understand his unhappiness with his place in life, Shannon has already allowed that sort of gloom to seep into his performance, where he looks at Weisz’s character with as much envy as incredulousness for what she has done. Could he do it too, you see him wondering in those twitchy eyes, and walk out of his current life?
It’s tempting. In one deft sequence Alice, or Jenny, or whoever, takes Tom to her research lab to hear the songs of the frogs she has been researching, signaling how Alice’s persona alterations are not merely about throwing away a previous life when she is worn out with it, but to explore new possibilities. In the flashes of being other people, Weisz is not so much crafting an entirely new character each time as conveying the palpable joy of her character sinking into a whole other existence. You see this best in her turn as a magician’s assistant, where she enters a box and drops through a trap door. She then waits, listening for the crowd’s applause post-trick, and when she hears it, a smile spreads across her face. God, it feels so good to disappear.