Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Review: "Complete Unknown"

Rachel Weisz plays a mesmerizing lady of mystery in “Complete Unknown,” although it’s not the usual sort of cinematic femme fatale we’re used to. Usually these women have a dark past they’re running from, or a date with destiny they’re trying to outstep. Alice is simply a person who sees life as a series of divergent episodes rather than a single long arc.

Alice… or shall we call her Jenny? Those are the names she has now and started with, respectively -- though there have been almost a dozen in between and, we suspect, many more to come after the movie closes its door on this part of her story.

When her existence becomes tedious or tiresome, Alice just walks out on her old life and starts another. New identity, new look, different attitude, a fresh location. New vocation, too - she’s been a nurse, Chinese magician’s assistant, classical pianist, some other things. Currently she’s a herpetology research assistant, who’s supposedly discovered a new species of frog on Long Island of all places, distinctive because of its special croaking song.

That’s Alice in a nutshell: something utterly unique, right under our noses.

She strikes up a conversation with Clyde (Michael Chernus), a nebbishy guy at the government building cafeteria. But it’s all been carefully planned: she knows Clyde is friends with Tom (Michael Shannon), an uptight sort who works on environmental issues. His entire job, we learn, is writing emails urging certain policy recommendations that have almost no chance of coming to pass.

If Alice is a chimera, constantly changing the face she presents to the world, then Tom is a man of immovable stone, wallowing in the deepest of ruts.

Alice gets Clyde to invite her to Tom’s birthday party -- showing off a potential new girlfriend to a close circle of friends, it would seem. They’re appropriately charmed by her leonine beauty, retiring brilliance and cool job.

But Tom immediately recognizes her as Jenny, his girlfriend from college 15 years ago. Shannon is great at playing characters uncomfortable in their own skins, and he builds Tom as a bundle of nerves and unvocalized regret. He has an amazing wife, Ramina (Azita Ghanizada), an aspiring jewel maker of Persian descent. They’re currently considering a huge change in their lives, but Tom is not the sort to let things go easily.

After the party grows increasingly uncomfortable, Tom and Alice/Jenny decamp to the streets to confront each other. Why is she here? Why the ruse with Clyde? Does she want to get back together, despite Tom’s obvious unavailability?

The questions are limitless, and definitive answers few. But the old connection is still there, and Tom becomes engrossed in Alice’s ability to put on and take off masks at will, as she demonstrates in a chance encounter with an older dogwalker (Kathy Bates) and her husband (Danny Glover). Tom goes along with it, even participates in the exercise, and the temptation for change is clear on his face.

Speaking of which, just watching these actors ply their craft is often mesmerizing in of itself. I would watch Michael Shannon's face for hours on end; so many angles and crevices to explore. The topography is interesting, of course, but it’s the sudden weather shifts that really dazzle.

And Weisz is so good at showing us the emotion that lies underneath Alice’s mountain of lies. Though she often leaves people she loves behind without even a goodbye, there’s no malice in her. She does not own a rear-view mirror; it’s the thrills ahead that compel.

Directed by Joshua Marston (“Maria Full of Grace”) from a screenplay he co-wrote with Julian Sheppard, “Complete Unknown” is a film that questions not just one woman’s opus of false personas, but the very concept of identity as a fixed point.

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