Now admittedly Complete Unknown is very much a niche appeal movie that, when you look at it, seems to depend a bit too much on the marketability of its main players and not so much on providing a juicy, easy to swallow hook for the viewer to latch onto. But it’s actually pretty enjoyable little drama if you’re willing to give it a chance. In a way it’s weird that more people haven’t found this movie, considering that the premise is pretty enigmatic: during a birthday dinner party the central character character Tom, played by Michael Shannon, happens to meet an old flame of his, Alice (played by Rachel Weisz), who at that point had been missing and though dead for over a decade, and who is now claiming to be a completely different person. And to make things even more interesting, it is later explained that ever since disappearing from Tom’s life, all those years ago, Alice has gone through several different identities, living in a cycle of creating entirely new lives for herself only to one day walk away from them, to become someone completely new again. In a way it reminds me of this 90s TV show called the Pretender, the only real difference being the lack of Sci-Fi elements.
Although it doesn’t really have much to go along in terms of sizzling plot or high dramatics, I can’t help but to really enjoy Complete Unknown. For one thing, the acting is pretty good. Rachel Weisz does a very solid performance as the identity swapping Alice, and she’s great playing opposite to the always reliable straight man Michael Shannon. Yet, out of the two main players, it’s actually Shannon who has to do much of the heavy lifting, portraying Tom as a man whose entire life seems to go topsy-turvy when he meets Alice and tries to make sense what is happening and why the woman he used to know and though to be dead is acting like she was someone else, a complete stranger to him. It’s very much the unique dynamic between Tom and Alice that keeps the movie together and makes it worth watching, even if the story never manages to produce anything particularly poignant message or theme. There’s just this certain strange magnetism with the two that charges their scenes. I also quite liked their weird interaction as they start getting reacquainted, and how quickly they seem to reset to their old pattern as friends once all the cards are on the table, not to mention the sheer complexity of their relationship has its own interesting subtleties. Weisz’s Alice has this inherent vulnerability to her, behind that chameleon like ability to becomes a completely new person at almost the snap of a finger. Even though she can shed away and abandon her old identities like snake does with its skin, strangely she feels compelled to meet Tom whom she left behind again after all these years. It signals a deep connection and shows her to have lingering emotions that are a crucial in softening her up and becoming likable as a character. Meanwhile Shannon’s Tom, who primarily is left to react to everything, goes through a very intriguing inner conflict and juggling challenge as he tries to process his own small marital problems atop of everything that Alive tells him, while also trying to keep up the pretense to the other party guests that everything is normal, as not to reveal Alice’s secret. The result is a peculiar mutual friendship between the two that is oddly compelling and endearing the more time Tom and Alice get to spend with each other.
Although most of the movie is a bit forgettable as a whole, there is one scene in the last third that, to me, pretty much makes the movie. It involves Alice and Tim helping an injured elderly woman, who has had a bad fall, back to her apartment. After finishing their good Samaritans act for the night, the scene develops into an interesting and sudden game of pretend, where as part of mundane conversation Alice starts telling the lady about her and Tom’s fictional life together. Tom suddenly finds himself not only complicit in the charade, but also strangely immersed in it once he starts pretending to be a doctor to play along with Alice’s given fake narrative. Apart from the dubious nature of the deceit, the scene is oddly adorable, as it allows Tom to experience and share the thrill and wonder of pretending to be someone else with Alice, while also allowing him to understand Alice in a completely new level. It’s also kinda cool because the old woman in the scene is played by Kathy Bates, and her husband is none other than Danny Glover, both doing a surprise appearances in the movie that I was not expecting.
The only real major flaw the movie has, to me at least, is that the movie has no real climax, it sort of just comes to an end with no real sense of closure. Nothing is really accomplished between Tom and Alice. The night is just over and they simply separate once more. Tom is seen returning home to his wife, while we see Alice abandoning her current life in order to disappear to the crowd, only to later reemerge as someone completely new again. I suppose something is gained in the sense that Tom finally got answers to Alice’s original disappearance and they more or less make peace and even sort of bond over it, and that indirectly helps Tom to reconcile with his wife, but there is nothing particularly major or significant to take way from the movie. I guess the issue I have is that it’s not particularly satisfying. You’re sort of left to want more. But I suppose that’s life for you. Maybe in ten years we can have another movie where Tom and Alice meet again. It could be a bit like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy.