COMPLETE UNKNOWN, drama, rated R, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
“How does it feel, how does it feel?/To be without a home/Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.” — Bob Dylan
We all reinvent ourselves at one time or another. Going off to college, moving to a new city, a different country, changing jobs — life offers several opportunities to shed the baggage we’ve schlepped around and get a fresh start.
Not everybody does it in as wholesale a fashion as Alice (Rachel Weisz), the mystery woman who shows up at the birthday party of Tom (Michael Shannon) in this edgy drama from Joshua Marston, a Californian making his home country debut after a couple of mostly foreign features, the Spanish-language Maria Full of Grace (2004) and the Albania-set The Forgiveness of Blood (2011).
Before the party that brings them together, when Alice shows up as the date of Tom’s business partner Clyde (Michael Chernus), we’ve learned a bit about them. Tom is a government worker living in New York, occupied with agricultural programs. His wife Ramina (Azita Ghanizada), who is Iranian and is teaching Tom a bit of Farsi, is a jewelry designer who has gotten an opportunity in California and wants them to leave the city and head out there.
Tom and Ramina’s issues — to move or not to move — are pablum compared to the shape-shifting Alice. By the time she shows up at Tom’s party, we’ve learned of at least a half-dozen past self-reinventions — she’s been a student, a magician’s assistant, an ER nurse, and a few other things, under an equal variety of names. And we’ve seen her Googling Tom and his partner, and manipulating a chance meeting with Clyde that brings her to Tom’s house for the fateful party.
Alice introduces herself as a biologist just returned from Tasmania and admits to a bit of her identity-shifting background at the party, to the discomfort of some of the guests. “When everyone thinks they know who you are, you’re trapped,” she says.
It’s clear from the moment she and Tom lock eyes that there’s history here, but Marston doles out the information in dribs and drabs, until the full backstory is revealed. At this point, Tom and Alice — or Jenny, as she now proves to be — leave the others to have a bit of adventure that involves an older couple (Kathy Bates and Danny Glover) in which Tom gets drawn into the identity-shifting game. They spend the rest of the movie talking things out. What starts as a potentially Hitchcockian thriller evolves into something more akin to Eric Rohmer, or Richard Linklater’s trilogy that began with 1995’s Before Sunrise. It loses something in the transition. But the questions it asks — Do we have to be who we are? How tempting and how rewarding is it to leave everyone and everything behind and emerge anew, like a butterfly from a chrysalis? — make intriguing food for thought. — Jonathan Richards
Persona problems: Michael Shannon and Rachel Weisz