Like a child’s helium-filled balloon escaping its owner’s grasp and floating up into the firmament, 35-year-old former stockbroker and photography student Doug Bruce awoke on a Coney Island-bound subway on July 3, 2003 completely untethered from himself and the world around him. The victim of a rare form of retrograde amnesia that had entirely wiped his episodic (read: personal) memory clean but left his procedural (read: skill-based) memory intact, Bruce was the owner of a blank mental slate, and friend Rupert Murray’s alternately poignant, terrifying, and profound documentary Unknown White Male follows Doug as he attempts to reconstruct a life from the wreckage wrought by his mysterious ailment. With no corporeal trauma to blame for his condition (and a pituitary tumor deemed unrelated), Bruce—a brash, outgoing London transplant living in New York City’s Lower East Side—found himself cast off into the world with a newborn’s untainted curiosity for life’s wonders but an adult’s disposition and intellectual capabilities, and Murray’s beguiling film begins as something of a mystery as Bruce embarks on a literal search for himself.
Using fish lenses, color-saturated time-lapse photography, and distorted tonal sounds, Murray strains to mimic Bruce’s overwhelming initial disorientation with slightly self-conscious affectations. However, if the first half’s Errol Morris-influenced aesthetic occasionally interferes with the frightening, heartbreaking confusion of his subject—captured in Bruce’s tearful exclamation of self-definition, “Look—I’m somebody!” when discussing the joyous relief he felt after being identified by a former girlfriend—the film becomes more fascinating after Bruce discovers his identity and sets about the daunting task of dealing with a foreign environment and people who expect him to be someone who, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists. Increasingly reliant on Bruce’s confessional DV-shot video journal footage to chart the now-reserved man’s reintroduction to friends, family, lovers, and the sights, sounds, and tastes of Manhattan, Unknown White Male gradually transforms into a first-person documentary portrait not of rediscovery but of wholesale reinvention. Fearful that the reemergence of memories may bring with it traumatic issues his mind has willfully suppressed, Bruce gradually accepts the prospect that he may never regain his past recollections, and thus commences sculpting a new, distinct personality that exhibits only a passing resemblance to the one now wholly forgotten.
Such a process of erasure and reconstruction proves unsettling for Bruce’s relatives and England-based mates, the latter of whom exhibit a natural confusion about how to interact with a man who only superficially resembles their comrade. This hesitation eventually encroaches on Murray’s clean, uncluttered direction, which takes on the slightly detached viewpoint of a person unsure of how to view the strange, unfamiliar ghost of a once-dear acquaintance. Bruce’s story ultimately thrives less from questions of how this “only in the movies” situation might have occurred than from its intriguing physical-versus-psychological investigation into the thorny nature of self, and such a potentially pretentious topic is generally handled not through ponderous narration but rather via agonizing sights such as a sobbing friend hugging Bruce with a mixture of elation and misery. Imparting a sense of man’s fundamental fragility with simple gestures (lingering shots of Bruce staring into nothingness or of a childhood chum’s distressed fidgeting), Unknown White Male concludes 14 months after the start of his ordeal with no further sign of cognitive restitution. And though Bruce’s ongoing circumstance lends the story a lack of finality, Murray’s spellbinding doc finds a transcendent encapsulation of its subject’s unique turmoil in an earlier glance from Bruce to his infant godson that—in its wide-eyed expression of uncomfortable awe and bewilderment—says, “I know exactly how you feel.”