Everyone fantasizes from time to time about pulling up stakes and starting over in a new life, but only Alice has actually done it—multiple times. The enigmatic center of Complete Unknown, she’s played by Rachel Weisz, an actress uniquely suited to portraying women whose beauty suggests vulnerability and maybe a dark secret or two. It’s easy to understand why all the other characters in this moody nighttime drama are initially absorbed by her. And it’s just as easy to grasp why one man never could really let her go, even though he hasn’t heard from her in more than a decade and has seemingly moved on.
The film stars Michael Shannon as Tom, who works the sort of job that is probably impressive but is so boring to describe that one can’t be sure. (He advises on the wording in proposed congressional legislation.) He’s having a birthday party, and he and his gorgeous wife Ramina (Azita Ghanizada) have invited a few friends over to their New York apartment. One of the guests (Michael Chernus) brings along a woman he’s met recently, Alice, but Tom knows her by another name from an earlier time in his life. Fifteen years after they last saw each other when they were lovers, she’s walked back through his door.
Director and cowriter Joshua Marston gives away some of the mystery intentionally at the start of Complete Unknown. We see Alice in several guises: somewhere in Asia working as a magician’s assistant, somewhere in America dressed like a vagabond hippie, driving a car wearing a smart suit in the suburbs, working as a nurse in the ER. Can these all be the same person? That’s what Complete Unknown leaves unanswered as Tom confronts her about why she’s really at his birthday party.
On one level, this film’s premise is ludicrous, presenting Alice as a woman with an almost supernatural ability to learn new vocations and adapt to new situations. But rather than carp about that, it’s much more fun to accept Complete Unknown on its own terms, which opens up the movie to be read in a more metaphorical light. Alice may be the one who’s constantly shedding her skin, but it’s Tom who symbolically gets a chance to do the same on this night.
Eventually, Tom’s guests tire of Alice’s stories, convinced she’s either a liar or, worse, a coldhearted woman who doesn’t care about the people she leaves behind when she grasps onto a new persona. (When she skipped out on Tom and the rest of her life 15 years ago, even her parents never heard from her, wondering if she’d died.) But Tom cannot help himself, quickly becoming drawn back into Alice’s orbit. And he has reasons: His wife just got accepted into an arts program in San Diego, which means that either Tom moves or they try to make a long-distance relationship work. (There are hints that their marriage isn’t so stable at the moment, by the way.)
Complete Unknown’s first half is devoted to the introduction of Alice and the guests’ delighted-then-disturbed reactions to her. The second half goes in a different, nervier direction, following Tom and Alice as they wander around New York at night, practically going back in time to when they were a couple. Everything they do together is meant to be taken literally—they befriend an older woman (Kathy Bates) and her husband (Danny Glover), they visit Alice’s lab (she’s working with frogs now)—but there’s a psychological underpinning to everything we observe. Unexpectedly, Tom has been given his own do-over, living inside Alice’s made-up reality for a few hours. Their nighttime excursion is a kind of emotional affair, and Tom learns firsthand how seductive reinvention can be. (When Alice tells the married couple that Tom is a doctor, he plays along, becoming a co-conspirator in her deception.)
Marston’s previous films were the you-are-there docudramas Maria Full of Grace and The Forgiveness of Blood. Complete Unknown is a sexier, more sensual film that’s about matters of the heart and the unspoken desires we all carry around with us. And he’s found the two best possible actors for these roles. Shannon always exudes a jittery tension, as if his characters don’t fit right in their skin. Tom seems successful but dissatisfied in some indescribable way: Alice’s appearance is both jarring and surprisingly restorative. And Weisz brings pure tantalizing inscrutability to her role. Alice is someone who’s unwise to fall in love with. But Weisz makes it clear why such a person, so volatile and untethered, is so damn hard to resist.
Director: Joshua Marston
Writers: Joshua Marston, Julian Sheppard
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates, Danny Glover, Michael Chernus
Release Date: Premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.