Many thrillers hide their true motives throughout their first acts, setting their traps in retrospectively plain sight. This construction often involves elaborate misdirection, attempting to convince the audience that they aren’t watching a thriller at all. By contrast, Joshua Marston’s Complete Unknown works in the opposite manner, going out of its way to prime the audience for something strange, only to spring a comparatively ordinary drama concerning affluent people at a figurative crossroads. Marston walks a tricky tightrope, as Complete Unknown is predicated on the notion of there being less to this film than we initially anticipated, which is meant to reflect the ennui with which the characters find themselves grappling. It’s an ambitious empathetic device that’s both admirable and, by design, disappointing.
Tom and Ramina (Michael Shannon and Azita Ghanizada) are a married couple living in an affluent brownstone in New York City. He’s on an economic board that influences land reform, while she crafts jewelry that’s gotten her admitted into a school in California. The timing of Ramina’s admission into this program is awkward for the couple, as Tom’s negotiating a stalled deal that may finally be reaching resolution. Details are planted in the film with surgical finesse, particularly the fact that Ramina speaks Farsi, which represents a cultural divide between her and Tom that exists both as a source of estrangement as well as a fount of attraction. Ramina’s background is only alluded to, but she’s clearly more traveled and experienced than Tom, who appears to be an intelligent, gifted American who’s locked in his own head, more comfortable with the theoretical than the actual.
The film is set almost entirely over the course of one evening, Tom’s birthday, which is the occasion for a dinner party and a night of dancing that leads to an explosion of Tom and Ramina’s tensions. A woman who calls herself Alice Manning (Rachel Weisz) arrives at Tom’s house with one of his colleagues, and Tom evinces an immediate distaste with her that casts suspicion over the festivities. We’re also suspicious, because a prologue has given us privileged information about Alice, who assumes many names and lives, going from a nurse to a bohemian to a magician’s assistant in China. At the party, Alice casually speaks of fleeing to Mexico as a young woman, allowing her family to believe her to be dead, and so the group’s initial impression of her as an awesome traveler and adventurer curdles over into unease.
Alice is a construct, both of the film and of herself, who contrastingly reflects Tom’s insecurities about himself as an unseasoned man and uninteresting intellectual. Alice embodies a more intense version of the contrast that Ramina also offers Tom, which he’s coming to resent. We initially wonder if Alice is a stalker, and she certainly is by a strict definition of the term, but she isn’t at Tom’s door to boil bunnies or terrorize Ramina, though the menacingly earthy and murky nighttime cinematography conjures a mood of yuppie horror in the key of Adrian Lyne. Complete Unknown concerns everyday emotional textures, such as regret over the road not traveled.
The film is gorgeously mounted and well-acted, particularly by Shannon and Weisz, who poignantly dramatize two people with a wealth of unresolved history between them. Shannon’s plainspoken poetry, his brilliance at playing gifted, closed-off men with seemingly no effort, meshes evocatively with Weisz’s ephemerality, which often contains an element of pain that resists the caricature of the gorgeous mystery woman of male fantasy. Complete Unknown is worth seeing for their rapport, and for their graceful exploration of the trap of identity, which Marston understands as an unstably subjective construct. Tom tethers himself off from life with a rigid adherence to his identity, while Alice alters hers over and over again, experiencing an enviable wealth of differing lives, though her sense of isolation ultimately and ironically resembles Tom’s. Tom and Alice are both static despite their differing approaches to life, because neither know themselves.
But Complete Unknown is too comfortable with the smallness of its characters, using their turmoil and confusion as a rationalization not to fully explore them or the scenario in which they find themselves. They’re held at arm’s length, and, yes, that’s the point, but it’s a point that grows tiresomely limited. Underneath the impersonal formal beauty and the good acting is a familiar moral about self-imposed limitations. The film’s intentional slightness serves as a get-out-of-jail-free card for Marston, empowering him to embrace tidiness. The potential existential horror that unites Tom and Alice is tamped too far down, rendering Complete Unknown polite and forgettable, altogether less than the sum of its parts.