In director Joshua Marston’s Complete Unknown, we meet Alice, a chameleonic presence (Rachel Weisz) who embodies a paradox: Who you are is profoundly influenced by context, and yet wherever you go, there you are. This proposition, initially fascinating, is made all the more compelling by Christos Voudouris’s beautiful cinematography, which perfectly captures the desolation of a nomadic life. His camera obliquely bobs just out of reach of the actors’ faces, driving home the characters’ core opacity. The trouble is that atmosphere alone can’t carry a feature film.
We first encounter Alice as she schemes to reconnect with her now-married ex-lover, Tom (Michael Shannon), by befriending his coworker, Clyde (Michael Chernus). Alice gets herself invited to a dinner party thrown by Tom and his wife, where the unraveling of Alice’s many identities begins. Complete Unknown is well cast with actors known for their ability to conjure the necessary dark vibe. Shannon, by now almost typecast as a tenacious and tender inquisitor, is the perfect foil to Weisz’s flighty, evasive Alice. And Weisz is subtle and evocative, though her performance doesn’t stray far from her wheelhouse of artsy, brainy beauties.
Over the course of the film, Alice cycles through a variety of improbable jobs and personas, including stints as a marine biologist in Tasmania, a magician’s assistant in Hong Kong, a seller of insurance in Ohio, and a Portland-area hippie, each time changing her name and silently abandoning her previous life. At one point, when Alice muses, “There’s this moment when you’re a blank slate,” the line is meant to be poignant, but it ends up underscoring the film’s curious emptiness. Without any clue as to the underlying causes of Alice’s deeper character flaws or knowledge of her past history, her identity switching feels like a mere quirk rather than the outward manifestation of some profound personal and cultural malaise.
The film’s lack of narrative ambition is frustrating; by cross-cutting between different geographies and temporalities, it seems to promise an expansive, philosophical meditation on identity that it never delivers. Amazon Studios, which has recently become a major distributor of American independent films, bills Complete Unknown as a thriller, but there are few thrills to be had in a movie in which so little happens.
This thinness of the story would be less frustrating if it weren’t ubiquitous in contemporary American indie filmmaking. Though the genre has never been particularly interested in epic storytelling, tending to focus instead on dramas of the kitchen-sink variety, the past few years have seen the rise of films unwilling to formulate anything beyond an interesting premise for a plot. Even recent critical darlings like conceptual horror indies It Follows and Queen of Earth lavish attention on ambiance at the expense of plotting.
What saves this film from the morass of forgettable, plot-less indies is its genuine visual beauty. Rich colors, rainy landscapes, and light-punctuated train rides in the night give inklings of the loneliness of being a figure adrift in those panoramas. Complete Unknown is a very good proposal for a film about the paradoxes inherent in personal identity, but it never quite takes off into a story.