complete unknown

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Director: Joshua Marston

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Year: 2016

More and more frequently, it seems that the most interesting films to see in theaters tend to be the lower budget endeavors that fall in the 40-60 range on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. This is not because these films are necessarily any better than their more well-received contemporaries, but simply because these films fall in a grey area where film culture can’t quite figure out what to make of them. Sure, there are your many take-them-or-leave-them duds in this category, but there are also the films which dare to stray, at least a little bit, from the beaten path into territory that is at least conceptually compelling, even if they’re often not technically executed perfectly. This category perfectly encapsulates COMPLETE UNKNOWN, a small drama that tries to go for big implications, only to narrowly miss its mark but create a perfectly palatable viewing experience all the same.

Amazon Studios and IFC films produced this drama that tries to straddle several lines at once and ask enormous questions, while only providing partial answers. COMPLETE UNKNOWN reunites two estranged lovers, Tom (miscast, but portrayed competently nonetheless by Michael Shannon) and Alice Manning (played with charm, finesse, and poise by Rachel Weisz). Tom has been quietly slaving away behind a desk trying to advocate for agriculture reform while his wife attempts to see her dreams of jewelry-making through. Alice, meanwhile, has been doing so much that it’s difficult to keep track of. Difficult even for her, it turns out, because Alice shows up at Tom’s birthday party, unannounced, accompanying Tom’s co-worker/best friend and pretending to be someone else entirely. She and Tom lock eyes and immediately recognize each other, but initially don’t acknowledge it.

Now, this is where the film is initially fantastic, because Tom does not immediately blow Alice’s cover or directly confront her, instead letting her stew in the layers of her fabricated identity for most of the evening. While we as the audience know something is certainly askew, we have very little concrete information on what to trust from Alice’s mouth for twenty minutes, and it’s remarkable to observe alongside Tom how the ensemble of characters gathered for the birthday party put together her deceit. The tension of whether or not Alice will be revealed as a fraud feels reminiscent of the best of Agatha Christie, with more existential musings threaded into the dialogue. Complicated explorations of individual liberty, moral relativism, and the permanence of identity are all teased to the surface as the party unfolds, swirling around the false persona Alice is presenting without directly touching it. It’s masterful, deeply entertaining writing that’s also mostly well-acted.

complete unknown interpersonal

Please sir, I want some more

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Unfortunately, it appears Joshua Marston and co-writer Julian Sheppard couldn’t figure out how to sustain that tension for an entire movie, because they choose to derail the action and send Tom and Alice off on a more intimate exploration of New York City and each other, away from the bevy of interesting supporting characters whom we have just come to know. It’s revealed that fifteen years ago, the pair had been college sweethearts, before Alice suddenly, dramatically, and completely disappeared. What Alice did in the interim informs everything about how she came to be at Tom’s party that evening, but may also be straying too far into spoiler territory to directly reveal here. Suffice it to say, watching Alice speak her truth ends up not being anywhere near as satisfying as watching her spin her web of lies.

This is a damn shame, because for the first 30 odd minutes of the film, Weisz confidently carries the film on her back, giving brief flashes of Gena Rowlands’s best work with Cassavetes, portraying a woman whose complex interior life has been stretched painfully thin and brought dangerously close to the surface. When the narrative comes crashing down at the midpoint, as Weisz is forced to deliver a lengthy expositional monologue explaining herself and turning the narrative rather clumsily from a thriller to a moody romantic drama, it’s hard not to feel tremendously let down as an audience member. Those moments of greatness, of strangeness, of tumultuous, conflicting morals will still resurface for the remaining 45 minutes, but they lose their weight and urgency when there are no immediate consequences for Tom and Alice in place, when there is no real-time threat of either of them being exposed.


At the premier, Michael Shannon dressed like he was going to expose himself to a bunch of kids at a park afterwards, which tells you all you need to know about how seriously he took the role

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It’s a strange thing, because although COMPLETE UNKNOWN failed to achieve what it ostensibly set out to do, it still managed to create several evocative scenes, moments which made me question myself, my morals, and the permanence of my identity. Every year there are plenty of films that are more widely well-received which fail to engage me as much as COMPLETE UNKNOWN managed to when all its wheels were spinning correctly. While it’s not a film that can be wholly recommended, it is a film that delights and challenges in its own haphazard way, and I would argue that this is something all audiences could use more of. So you may not need to rush to see COMPLETE UNKNOWN immediately, but I’d challenge anyone reading this to go off the beaten path and see a film with a mediocre rating on Rotten Tomatoes — you may very well at least see an original film.

Verdict: Do Not Recommend

Carter Moon grew up in the desolate Evangelic capital of the world and responded by developing a taste in counter culture, which eventually bloomed into a love for filmmaking and screenwriting. Carter has average opinions on most things, but will defend them adamantly and loudly until no one else wants to bother speaking up. He runs Crossfader's podcast, IN THE CROSSHAIRS.

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1 Response

  1. Kate says:

    Beautifully stated! I found good food in this film as well. A bit of intuitive mapping is probably required to pull meaningful resonance…and your post is the only one I’ve seen that forgives its imperfections in favor of what it points to, which (I think) is a good-enough critique of modern identity, careerism, and social norms for women. I’d be curious to see what was cut out or what a rewrite could do…and agreed on the RT 40-60 range. Have you seen I Love Dick? Another example, for me, of something overlooked but incredibly worthwhile…