We usually think that identity is an important part of who we are, helping us define ourselves to the world. But we are not always in control of our identities, and they can become prisons. Rachel Weisz’ character in Complete Unknown understands this all too well; she has made a career out of shrugging them off and reinventing herself to escape.
This sort of fractured character study is itself a departure from the pointed social commentary director Joshua Marston has presented in his other two features, Maria Full of Grace and The Forgiveness of Blood. He, too, may have been yearning to break free from the box he found himself in. We are all more than any one idea.
It’s difficult to pin down so much as a name for Weisz’ character. During the bulk of the film she goes by Alice, so I’ll stick with that for now. Alice has lived a life seemingly on the run from herself, always ready to pick up and jump halfway around the world to start over as someone else. But after fifteen years of this, she longs for a moment of contact with someone who knew her before.
She picked out her latest identity — a research assistant in a biology lab studying a new species of frog on Long Island — so she could be near Tom (Michael Shannon). She “accidentally” meets one of his co-workers and strikes up a friendship just in time to be invited to Tom’s birthday. She tests the waters carefully, waiting for Tom to reach back, quietly calling her “Jenny”, before she starts to lower her guard.
She tells the group that she once went by her Spanish-class nickname — “Jennifer” evidently didn’t fly, so she’d been assigned “Conseulo” — while on a college bus trip through Mexico. By the time she got back to the United States, she didn’t want to go back to her old name. Or her old home, for that matter. And so she began her journey. Is that how it really happened? does it even matter?
Tom knows how devastated he was when Jennifer disappeared, not to mention her family. She says she let them know she wasn’t dead, but again we only really have her word for it. But again, does it really matter whether she did or not?
As Alice and Tom continue talking, we start to understand why she does what she does. We might not agree with her, and certainly most of us aren’t about to jump in after her, but we can understand her. Maybe we can even see a bit of ourselves in her.
After you’ve been doing something a long time, it can be hard to change. It’s bad enough just considering your own inertia, but when everyone around you thinks of you a certain way, it can be that much harder to push back against their ideas. Whether or not they mean to, they tell you who they think you are over and over again. Changing means upending their comfort as well as your own. It sounds silly, but just try changing something as simple as the way you dress, or the food you eat. Even disguised as good-natured ribbing, the message will come through loud and clear: “This is not you. We know who you really are.”
Jennifer found a way out, and she loved it. But now Alice has found herself back in another box, unable to access the comfort and support of a community. When she’s not talking with Tom, being honest in a way she hasn’t been in years, Marston shoves her off to the side of the frame, nearly abstracted from her own life. Cinematographer Christos Voudouris’ razor-sharp depth of field makes it hard to focus on more than one figure at a time, throwing off all perceptions that aren’t directly in front of us.
The result is a fascinating dive into a person who lives very differently than most of us would ever dream. No matter what Marston chooses next, he’s sure to land on his feet.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.