Cinema Review: Complete Unknown | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, October 25th, 2020  

Complete Unknown

Studio: Amazon Studios / IFC Films
Directed by Joshua Marston

Sep 15, 2016 Web Exclusive
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A dreamy montage sends Complete Unknown on its way as a bubble on the winds of what if. Inside its illusory shell, Rachel Weisz dances between disparate vessels of being with the same wistfully detached gaze, except for one secret moment. When out of sight after the magician’s assistant she is then inhabiting drops below the stage, a forlorn twist of expression reveals a longing. Then we cut to a tighter environment, with less space for possibility, and Michael Shannon at a desk with a bunched up posture suggestive of him being chained to it, an expression, of course, more severe. The contrast established at the outset carries for most of the distance in the character driven sphere where actors can really get to work. It’s a good thing these two are coexisting within it.

The storyline returns Alice (Weisz) to Tom (Shannon) suddenly and for one evening, from a place in the past when he knew her as Jenny. She reappears at his birthday party, having used his work buddy as an escort to sneak back into his world. This is a glimpse of an encounter that is so often left to the imagination in real life, of two people that had shared time, were abruptly separated when one abandons the other, and have years later faced off for a reckoning. Alice has never wanted to be anyone long enough for sentiment or regret to take hold, while Tom has turned into a ball of tension, uptight with his own resignation to the life he has settled for, something she refuses to do, one with the exterior of conventional benchmarks of place in society that appear only laborious to him.

What is sold so brilliantly by Weisz is that this is her one cautious attempt at looking back over her shoulder. Tom was the one individual in her parade of flight who had caught her eye in the crowd and had sunk into the skin she’s so uncomfortable with. Despite her enigmatic aura, she reveals in subtlety, that somehow, he had reached her. “I needed to see someone who knew me.” A statement so fundamentally human, yet novel for her. Shannon's stoicism is rocky ground to plough and belies a point of entry, and this makes his gradual softening towards a desire to understand her all the more convincing, and touching too.

The party of friends including Tom’s wife, is kept out of Alice’s secret, and forms a front of well orchestrated pretension, indirectly making Weisz’s case for her. When you’re with yourself and it's fixed associations and problems every waking hour, the allure of leaving it all behind grows in repressed shadow. Here is made the intriguing argument that free will may only belong to anonymity. When Tom abandons his own birthday festivities in pursuit of her, he’s making it too. Kathy Bates and Danny Glover appear for a scene that spreads the focus and offers an opportunity for Alice to demonstrate just how effortless it is for her to become a conjured personae. A squirming Tom bares witness, reluctantly joining in on the improv. Just for a moment, he follows his curiosity of what she derives from escaping the boundaries of identification.

The film is really about the trickiness of vulnerable human exchange, more than any progression of plot to a conclusion. Weisz’s transient vacancy and Shannon's stern consumption in his own existence forms the surface for their character interplay, which is theatricality with real purpose of execution. These are the kinds of roles that showcase an actor’s craft. We’ve seen if from Weisz time and time again - that communication of a power in ambiguity. Her innate seductive charm can manipulate and disarm while keeping you at arm’s distance, and is at full potency in films like The Shape of Things and The Constant Gardener. The more chances Shannon gets like this, the more he solidifies his talent of flashing sensitivity behind his towering presence.

In the hands of actors this studied and sure, the gamut of conflicting and burrowed emotions is displayed with elegant reserve. It would be a shame if the film went the way of its title.

Author rating: 7.5/10

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