We know we've entered the Fall season when movies like Complete Unknown begin to crop up in the plexes. The archetypal "small" indie character study is produced by a consortium of film and television companies and released in this country by IFC Films in association with Amazon Studios — the retail giant's foray into theatrical and TV movie. It's directed by Joshua Marston, who made an art-house splash in 2004 with the drug-mule drama Maria Full of Grace. Since then, Marston has spent most of his time grinding out episodes for various televised properties.
With Complete Unknown, the writer-director has been dealt a full house of acting talent for a deceptively slender story — screenplay by Marston and TV writer Julian Sheppard — set in the comfortable urban living rooms and nightspots of Brooklyn, New York. Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates, and Danny Glover combine for a film in which people mostly stand around indoors and talk about their feelings. But Weisz's Alice is not an ordinary individual, and those feelings run high.
Tom (Shannon) is a political consultant whose current project is a land reform bill. He lives with his jewelry-designer wife Ramina (Azita Ghanizada) in a spacious brownstone where, as the film opens, Tom's birthday party is getting under way. One of Tom's colleagues brings along a new acquaintance named Alice, and she immediately enthralls the guests with accounts of her time as a biologist working in the marshes of Tasmania, searching for a cancer cure involving frogs. Everyone is captivated, but a strange expression comes across Tom's face. For him, "Alice" is not a biologist at all, but Jenny, his former lover whom he hasn't seen for years. What's she doing here all of a sudden? What made her adopt a new name, and what's all this about overseas research? Tom calls her out on it: "Please, tell me you're kidding."
The truth comes out in the course of one evening, disrupting Tom's relationship and putting his issues-oriented social circle on edge. Alice/Jenny evidently leads more than one life, changing identities as it suits her, a new role for everyone she meets. Sometimes she's an ER nurse, another time a magician's assistant in China, and so on. If we were feeling prickly, we might call her a pathological liar with identity issues.
While Tom and Jenny heatedly discuss this out on the street that night — Ramina and bewildered friends have been left behind — the pair encounter a woman with her own disoriented point of view (Bates). The woman takes them home to meet her partner (Glover), and Jenny presents herself to them as a cardiologist, for no obvious reason except that the Bates character may be suffering a heart attack. Tom's head is spinning. "How do you even keep track of it all?" he asks. Jenny's reply shuts the door on any further exploration of her motives: "When everyone around you tries to lay claim to you, then you're trapped."
You can't attempt this type of actor's exercise with just anyone. The busy, award-winning Weisz, recently seen in The Lobster and with The Light Between the Oceans waiting in the wings, excels in one-on-ones. The more complicated her character, the better. Ditto beetle-browed Shannon, who covers the "creepy intensity" waterfront like no other actor since the heyday of fellow former Chicago stage actor John Malkovich.
Here, in Marston's shadowy out-of-the-past scenario, it's Weisz and not Shannon who listens to the croaking of the frogs and wanders off into her own little sphere of existence. She and Shannon embody the urge to reconnect with a lost love, walk away from everyone else, leave the real world behind, and follow their nebulous dreams on the spur of the moment. Their story doesn't have any right to be so poignant and enchanting, but it is.