There’s a sequence deep into Joshua Marston’s awkwardly uneven movie Complete Unknown that highlights what the film could have been. When Jenny (Rachel Weisz) turns up at a birthday party for her old flame Tom (Michael Shannon), he’s flabbergasted. She disappeared from his life 15 years ago without a word, abandoning her family, who looked to him for answers. In the interim, he’s married another woman, moved into his childhood home in Brooklyn, and settled into a life that doesn’t deal well with upset or unpredictability. Jenny rapturously tells him about the wonders of self-reinvention, and the many times she’s taken a new name, made up a new history, and started over from scratch. He finds the idea preposterous and selfish, for good reasons, coming from his own experiences with her.
So when a passing stranger (Kathy Bates) falls and hurts her foot, Jenny pretends to be a doctor and draws Tom into the ruse, inventing a shared past for the two of them that seems to be half fiction, half relationship therapy where she can revise what happened between them. Tom, initially reluctant, gets drawn into the fantasy, letting Jenny define his character, then performing it for the unsuspecting woman and her husband (Danny Glover).
It's very much like what happens in Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy, except that in Kiarostami's film, even the audience doesn't know where the fantasy begins and ends for the central couple. The characters there are exploring a complicated philosophical question that's openly left for the viewers to answer. Complete Unknown's version of the same idea is smaller and simpler. Jenny gently shows Tom a feeling she's failed to communicate in words, and he responds by falling for the seductive side of lying to strangers. As with Certified Copy, the audience is drawn in by the difference between a lecture about someone's abstract beliefs, and the reality of how those beliefs interact with the world.
As quiet and understated as the sequence with Bates and Glover is, it's still electric, full of undercurrents, secret understandings, and sublimated negotiations. But it's a long, unsteady haul to get to that sequence. Some of the film's trivial details about Tom's job, or the tensions between him and his wife Ramina (Azita Ghanizada), are necessary to understand the complicated push and pull going on between Tom and Jenny. But too much of the film feels like white noise and filler. Marston is working in English for the first time after his well-received features Maria Full Of Grace (in Spanish) and The Forgiveness Of Blood (in Albanian), but the banality of the dialogue in the film's first half makes his words seem wasted in any language. So much of the film dances around the truth about who Jenny is, and why she's chosen the methods that define her life. But the extended coyness doesn't create a compelling mystery. It just delays forward momentum, stalling the film as it lurches toward the significant part of the story.
And the framing for that central scene keeps detracting from Marston's attempts to balance Tom and Jenny's viewpoints. Jenny gets access to Tom's birthday party by luring his co-worker Clyde (Michael Chernus) into the beginnings of a relationship, then ignoring him once she has her foot in Tom's door. It's an unnecessary pretense that highlights her complete lack of empathy, and her willingness to take advantage of people, even using them as props. And the flubs she makes with Tom's friends — one of whom sees through her from the start — raise the question of how good she really is at fabrication, and how she maintained any of her identities as the lies built up. Meanwhile, Tom's brittleness and shrillness with Ramina doesn't speak well to the stability he's trying to preserve. They both come across as poor representatives for the lifestyles they're espousing, and the film's unwillingness to pick a side leaves it without a point of view or a sense of focus.
The casting is also problematic. Shannon is a tremendous actor, and he certainly has no difficulties bringing across the necessary distaste and frustration Tom feels for Jenny. But his performance and his physical presence tend to make every interaction feel sinister and ominous. He also feels significantly older than Weitz. She's four years older in the real world, but she brings a naïve, fulfilled flush of energy to her role, and when she puts it next to Shannon's lined face and the leaden sense of responsibility he projects, the story's conclusion seems forgone. Jenny is a centered pixie dream girl trying to lure Tom away to play with the fairies, but he feels like someone who rejected whimsy and spontaneity before she was born.
It's never clear why Jenny is so interested in Tom, and Marston's inability to fully come to grips with her is a fatal flaw. It's implied that something has changed for her recently, but it's unclear what. Marston acknowledges the romance of her situation via a gauzy montage of her living every life she wants, but he never makes those lives seem plausible, given the vast conceptual gaps between them. (Swinging a role as a magician's assistant in China doesn't require much more than style and luck, but how did she become an ER nurse without the necessary education?) And he has Tom expose the cost of her actions, without addressing how she changed him, either in the past or present. The seeds of a rich and compelling fantasy are here, and there are any number of ways to make them relevant and relatable. Given how the internet lets us all play with different identities, but also introduces us to worlds we never would have known about otherwise, expanding the range of our jealousy and dissatisfaction, Jenny's capacity for reinvention seems inviting and current. It's like a fable for the modern age, about the temptations of technology and the real-world cost of accepting those temptations.
But Complete Unknown never locks onto the details. Unlike Catch Me If You Can, which showed how its identity-shifting protagonist used charisma and chutzpah to fall into new roles, or Catfish, which showed the naked longing behind faked identities, Marston's film doesn't have force or focus behind it. It also doesn't have the curiosity to explore what's going on behind the soft preaching about Jenny's love of self-creation. The film never comes up with a mission statement or a message that might tie together its wandering scenes, or explain its vague melancholy. In the end, it feels like a life-support system for a single perfect scene — a sequence that suggests all the conflicts, compromises, and rewards the rest of the film never fully explores.
Note: Complete Unknown opens in limited markets on August 26, with a wide release scheduled for September 9. While Amazon Studios picked up the film, no Amazon streaming release date has been set yet.