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With: Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates, Danny Glover, Azita Ghanizada, Chris Lowell, Condola Rashad, Michael Chernus
Written by: Joshua Marston, Julian Sheppard
Directed by: Joshua Marston
MPAA Rating: R for some language
Running Time: 90
Date: 09/02/2016

Complete Unknown (2016)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Secret Identities

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the first moments of Joshua Marston's Complete Unknown, we see Rachel Weisz in many different guises. She seems to be a nurse, and a magician's assistant, and more. Her hairstyle changes, and she seems to be living in different climates, with totally different personalities. Is this a series of alternate realities in some sci-fi movie? No. Her Alice (or Jenny) is just a girl who once decided to change her identity and start over, and then became addicted to doing that, again and again. This story is about what happens when she decides to meet up once again with someone she once knew, Tom (Michael Shannon).

Tom works in some strange job that involves lobbying for farmers. His beautiful wife (Azita Ghanizada) makes jewelry, and there's some tension about her possibly going away for an artist's fellowship. But for now it's Tom's birthday and their friends are coming over for a party. (Tom is just about to go to the bakery to have them fix a mistake on his cake, "Happy Birthday Tony," but he's too late.) His business partner (Michael Chernus) brings Alice/Jenny to the party, and Tom nearly flips.

His friends like her, and love her crazy stories from around the world (she has discovered a new breed of frog, identified by its unique song), but they soon decide that she's a B.S. artist and begin chastising her. She storms out and Tom makes an excuse to follow her. From there, the movie provides its answers, and a chance for Tom to understand, to get inside her lifestyle. When a sweet little old lady (Kathy Bates) twists her ankle while walking her dog, Tom and Alice/Jenny help her home, and then begin to lie about who they are.

This may seem superficial, until you consider that this is also the life of actors; I saw this movie one day after The Light Between Oceans, in which Weisz played a 1920s woman grieving over her missing daughter. In Complete Unknown she disguises her English accent. Michael Shannon had recently adopted a Southern accent for his portrayal of Elvis Presley. These actors are people that have lived multiple lives, if only for a short while each time, and their ruses somehow make people happy.

I think that's what Marston (Maria Full of Grace, The Forgiveness of Blood) is really getting at. Is an identity as fragile as a name misspelled on a birthday cake? Yes, it's interesting that we can change our identities and go places and do things, but how does this affect others? It's fun to meet someone with great stories to tell, and, at the same time, even if you spend every day with your roots, with your family and friends, how well do you really know any of them? Do we know all their secrets?

A great moment comes as Alice/Jenny says goodbye to Tom. They hug, and Tom lets go before she does; she hangs on a moment longer. She clearly has not had a connection for a long time. Does she need one? Tom, meanwhile, may feel that he cannot connect to her; it will be too painful once she disappears again.

Marston makes great use of realistic New York locations, from the window-lined cafeteria where Alice/Jenny first makes her appearance, to Tom's cramped office, to the dark city streets where the old friends catch up and compare notes. The apartment of the lady and her husband (Danny Glover) has Haitian tones, and its own little moments of deception and disguise. In short, Complete Unknown — presumably named after a line in Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" — left me thinking about identity. Can identity really exist without any deception? Or is it, at its core, a mix of truth and lies?

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released a DVD that contains a director's commentary track, but no other extras, no Blu-ray and no digital copy. No complaints on the DVD quality, but it's too bad that this unsung title isn't getting a little more love.

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