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Complete Unknown

It’s been too long since I covered something more obscure. Something that sounds potentially fascinating, with a highly limited release, that somehow seems to have flown completely under the radar.

Wait, what’s that? A dramatic thriller starring Rachel Weisz and Michael Shannon? And barely anyone seems to have heard of it? Oh, I’ve got to see what this is all about.

Complete Unknown stars Rachel Weisz in the role of… well, let’s call her Alice. She has cycled through nine different identities over the past fifteen years, all over the world, and all with completely different skill sets. It’s not that she’s a criminal or anything — it’s just that every time she feels like she can’t go any further in one life, she wipes the slate clean and starts over. Of course, given how prolific she is, it was only a matter of time before somebody recognized her from one of her previous lives.

Enter Michael Shannon, in the role of Tom. He’s tremendously successful at his job — something to do with helping to write farming legislation — but his wife (Ramina, played by Azita Ghanizada) has just been accepted into a school on the other side of the country. So naturally, Tom has to figure out whether he’s going to leave his job entirely, let his wife go on without him, or try and find some way to make everything work out.

On top of all that, the film plays out over Tom’s birthday. So the guy is already at a crossroads in his life in so many different ways. And that’s before “Alice” shows up, somehow convincing one of Tom’s coworkers to bring her along as a date.

I don’t want to go into too much more detail regarding who Alice is or how she and Tom know each other. The important thing is that both characters have very different attitudes toward change and personal growth. As the career-oriented man in a deeply committed marriage, Tom is all about reliability, consistency, and trust. Compare that to Alice, who has no relationships of any kind to anyone. Moreover, she’s such a compulsive liar that there’s no way to trust a single word out of her mouth. Yet Tom is more or less stuck with his problems and his responsibilities, while Alice is free to shrug everything off in the blink of an eye.

Moreover, it can’t be denied that Alice has a tremendous depth and breadth of knowledge that she can pull from at any time. From magic tricks to heart surgery to obscure leeches that only exist in one remote Tanzania swamp, Alice can do or talk about anything she ever needs in any given scenario. Compare that to Tom, whose long career as a desk jockey has only equipped him to talk about e-mails.

Even so, I’m sure we’ve all had those times when our problems are so overbearing, or our lives seem so monotonous, that we wish we could just wipe the slate clean and start over. It’s also very common to think of ourselves — or others — as weak and cowardly for not going outside our comfort zones and trying something new. Alice is quite successfully living out that fantasy, and there’s a grudging kind of admiration in that, but at what cost? Perhaps more importantly, how long can she keep this up?

This is all fascinating stuff for a film to go into, a deep well of incisive and poignant themes that would be relevant for anyone at any stage of their own personal growth. Such a pity this particular approach doesn’t exactly make for good cinema.

For a 90-minute film that takes place entirely within a single night, it’s drawn out as fuck. There’s way too much vital information about our two leads that’s withheld for way too long, instead reserved for second-act plot twists for the purpose of stretching out the runtime. It should go without saying that the whole point of a hook is to place it at the start of a story, so the audience is motivated to stay put. When the hook is placed somewhere in the middle with no sign of how long until it arrives, that’s kind of a big fucking problem.

It also doesn’t help that the filmmakers put in some truly baffling shots and edits. Some of them work beautifully (the ambiguous ending for Tom comes to mind), but most of them just look pretentious as hell. I get the distinct impression that the filmmakers were going for intrigue and suspense, but again, that completely falls apart when we don’t have a hook to draw us into the story.

The actors aren’t much help either, I’m sorry to say. Rachel Weisz is certainly a wonderful actor, but that doesn’t count for anything in the first half, when the character is so deliberately opaque that she’s got nothing to work with. As for Michael Shannon, of course he’s an incredible actor and he can do anything. But Tom is infuriating in that it’s Shannon playing a normal guy. I’ve seen Shannon give powerhouse performances to shake the rafters and blow the doors off the theater, so it’s extremely disappointing to see Shannon play a more subdued role (and admittedly do a fine job of it) when we all know that he’s capable of far more.

Also, Kathy Bates and Donald Glover show up for what’s basically an extended cameo. They essentially play dupes so that Alice can demonstrate her pathological lying skills and help Tom practice his. It’s a sweet little scene, but ultimately just as drawn-out and padded as anything else in the movie.

Complete Unknown is maybe ten or fifteen minutes’ worth of good ideas padded out into a 90-minute film. It’s a fascinating theme, and the central premise is quite compelling, but the plot and the characters just aren’t strong enough. Ultimately — and I really am sorry to say this — the good parts aren’t worth the interminable slog in getting to them. And the film is so obscure anyway that it’s hard to justify putting in the extra work in finding it. Not recommended.

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