Complete Unknown: Starting from Scratch, by Tyler Smith
Joshua Marston’s Complete Unknown seems at first as though it will be a relationship thriller, in the vein of Fatal Attraction or Gone Girl. All the elements are there and the film slowly sets up a potentially explosive situation. However, just as it looks like things are going to take a potentially volatile turn, the film pivots, choosing instead to explore its characters and their motivations. And, in the process, the film becomes an effective exploration of the transformative nature of art and creation.
The story begins with Tom (Michael Shannon) as he prepares to celebrate his birthday. As he and his wife, Ramina (Azita Ghanizada), get ready to entertain their friends, they talk over a dilemma that can’t be ignored. Tom has a very dull job, but one that he does well. Ramina – an independent jewelry designer – has been accepted to a school across the country to California to learn more about setting up her business. Tom has promised that they would go if she were accepted, but now that she has been, he’s hesitant. Their conflict is interrupted by the arrival of their guests, including Alice (Rachel Weisz), the girlfriend of one of Tom’s colleagues. As the party wears on, Tom and Alice eye each other suspiciously.
It is soon revealed (to us, not the other partygoers) that these two had a relationship fifteen years ago, before Alice disappeared without warning. In the interim, Alice (whose name was originally Jenny) moved from one place to another, assuming new identities, taking on new jobs, becoming entirely new people. Once she would begin to get tired of who she was and what she was doing, she would pack up and move on to some other place. South Africa, China, Tasmania; just a few of the places she has been over the years. Tom is astonished, but deeply confused.
As Tom and Alice leave the party, we begin to worry that Alice is up to no good and that something terrible could happen, but the film opts instead to go deeper than that. Rather than remaining a thriller, the film embraces the drama of two people that haven’t seen each other for many years. They attempt to catch up, but it’s a much more difficult task when one person has literally lived dozens of different lives. Tom is incredulous at Alice’s choices, but fascinated nonetheless.
Alice talks about the excitement she feels when she starts from scratch, introducing herself as somebody new, letting the expectations of those around her inform her new identity. Tom accuses her of dishonesty, and he’s not necessarily wrong. But it appears there’s no malicious intent. Just as Tom begins to question Alice further, the two are interrupted by an older woman (Kathy Bates), who trips on the sidewalk and sprains her ankle. Alice – insisting that she is a doctor – rushes to the woman’s side, inviting Tom to play along. Warily, Tom does.
What ensues is a sort of long form improv, with Tom and Alice performing for the older woman and her husband (Danny Glover). As the couple begin to open up to Tom and Alice, Tom experiences the unique thrill that comes from gaining the trust of a stranger, though it’s not a con. It’s about being what other people want you to be, and providing them with that comfort and contentment. Tom soon understands what Alice is talking about, and feels somewhat invigorated by it. He is, in fact, so inspired by Alice’s attitude and behavior that he rushes back home to his wife, eager to pick up the California conversation. He feels a little freer than he did before, and Alice again slips away.
While she might not consider herself this, Alice is an artist. She is a writer and an actor. She creates her own characters and motivations and then proceeds to act them out as best she can. She immerses herself in her art in a way few can truly understand. But, as is the nature of art, her “characters” are never finished; for her to complete her art projects would mean for her to live out the rest of her life as these people. But she can’t do that. She has to move on. So, as the old saying goes, her art is never finished. It is only abandoned.
As Alice, Rachel Weisz is likely bringing a lot of herself to the role. After all, she is required to inhabit different characters for a living. And she is definitely able to capture the fulfillment that Alice gets out of her choices. But, wisely, she also layers on a certain melancholy; an understanding that she’ll never really be able to connect with people on the most pure, honest level. This is why she wants to see Tom again. She wants to talk to somebody who really knows who she is. Tom is a grounding element in her life, and it’s something she hasn’t had for a long time.
Michael Shannon’s performance as Tom is pitch perfect. Shannon – who became known for his off-kilter characterizations early in his career – has become an expert at playing domestic types, while never completely discarding his trademark intensity. Tom is an unhappy man who didn’t even know just how unhappy he was, and Shannon captures the sad hopefulness so common to those in his situation, trying to make the best of an unsatisfying personal and professional situation.
In the end, it turns out that Alice and Tom need each other. Not as lovers – that ship has long since sailed – but as mirrors. Tom sees Alice’s free spirit and realizes the changes he needs to make. Alice looks at Tom and finds a link back to her true self, which she so desperately needs to keep from completely drifting away. In this complicated relationship, we see the interaction between artist and audience, and James Marston’s sensitive handling of the material serves as a gentle reminder of just how necessary both are to one another.