Sundance 2016: ‘Complete Unknown’ offers intimacy but no easy answers

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Complete Unknown
Directed by Joshua Marston
Written by Joshua Marston and Julian Sheppard
USA, 2016

Complete Unknown has an almost mystical reverence for Alice (Rachel Weisz of The Constant Gardener, The Fountain). She has lived many lives and taken many names after leaving behind her family and former boyfriend Tom (Michael Shannon) 15 years ago. With ease she picks up new professions and changes her looks. She enjoys the act of re-birth even if it doesn’t satisfy her enough to stick with one for life. Writers Joshua Marston and Julian Sheppard examine her ability to transform, her brilliant careers, and exotic tastes. The worshipping of Alice is problematic for the film, although it takes steps to deconstruct the negative effects she has had on the people she has left behind. Complete Unknown embraces risk while letting love and sadness simmer in the background.

A woman living entirely for herself, free of the burdens of love and family is a novel concept. Still, returning to surprise Tom on his birthday in his home feels as though Alice does crave familiarity, and certainly continues to possess an affection for him that she could never entirely shake. Shannon’s eyes convey a sense of of betrayal and buried love that has suddenly erupted from the recesses of his subconscious. The tenderness between them is evident, even as the dialogue digs at the resentment and fear that Alice left in the wake of her disappearance. Tom has slowly been retreating from his marriage, and so Alice’s appearance amplifies his feelings of uncertainty. The masks of Weisz are transfixing, but Shannon’s pained cerebral quest for explanations from her carry the movie to dark places beyond her vague answers.

Alice’s motives are not frivolous, but they are cold-hearted. She desires to live life to its fullest, which means abandoning what she’s created with people and places time and time again. This lack of responsibility towards other people’s emotions gives her character a respectable edge, but leaves a bitter aftertaste of impossibility for the viewer. Much like the 90s television show The Pretender or Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Catch Me If You Can, she is magically amazing at everything she decides to do. Is she a genius, or has she transcended human attachment to become something other? Tom is by turns angry and bewitched by her presence. He has a normal job and a life racked with indecision. Neither of them seem as if they will ever be satisfied, yet -importantly and creatively- the movie doesn’t declare that they are the answer to each other’s problems. There is great deal of connection between the two, but no flighty, harmonious answers.

Even though the film concentrates a little too wholeheartedly on the novelty of Alice’s split identities, what it does well is give the characters time alone together to talk out insecurities that they could never tell anyone else. Their brief time together illuminates the distressing mental isolation that emerged from their first separation. Complete Unknown provides its audience with no easy resolutions or cemented feelings. It lets residual anger subside into something more comfortably real when confronting yourself or close relationships;the notion that feeling complete is merely an ideal, and that taking risks is only a brief antidote to larger, looming problems that can never be left behind- only eased.

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