Most fictional stories — even ones about everyday life — start with a fantasy. In director Joshua Marston’s moody new drama “Complete Unknown,” the big “what if” is simple but strong. What if a person just walked away from her old life and started over somewhere else, with a new identity? Then what if she did it again? And again? And then what if — in the middle of the ninth version of herself — she suddenly showed up a birthday party for one of the people she left behind, some 20-odd years ago?
Rachel Weisz stars as the woman, who used to be known as Jennifer but now calls herself “Alice.” Michael Shannon plays her ex-boyfriend, Tom, an agricultural analyst who’s living in New York with his wife Rehema (Azita Ghanizada), who designs jewelry. On the night of his party, Tom and Rehema have just renewed a longstanding quarrel over whether or not he’s going to join her when she moves to California to take advantage of a fellowship. And then Tom’s best friend and co-worker Clyde (Michael Chernus) arrives with the woman he’s been talking about for weeks, whom Tom recognizes immediately as “Jenny.”
Marston and his co-screenwriter Julian Sheppard keep a lot of balls in the air for roughly the first half-hour of “Complete Unknown.” The movie opens with a montage of Jennifer’s many lives — as a hippie, a nurse, a magician’s assistant, and more — before the audience even knows anything about who she is or what’s she’s done. Then the story jumps to the party, which is structured like a lively one-act play, with a lot of rapid-fire dialogue that starts out chummy and then curdles as Tom starts cornering Jenny.
Marston is best-known for his first film, 2004’s “Maria Full of Grace,” an edgy drug-smuggling potboiler that at times “Complete Unknown” resembles, at least stylistically. Marston favors close-ups and slightly off-kilter medium shots, and his characters dispense information fitfully, keeping the audience somewhat disoriented. He and Sheppard never let too much time pass without bringing viewers back up to speed, but still, there’s a creeping unease throughout the first half of “Complete Unknown,” which makes the movie enjoyably nerve-wracking.
Eventually, the stingy parceling-out of backstory gives way to over-generous dollops. First, Jennifer tells Tom all about what she’s been up to since she left him back in college. Then, she tells him how it feels to be reborn every few years, and how she likes to live in the skin of the women she creates just long enough to tell a complete story, at which point she moves on. Slowly, it becomes clear that the she’s popped up again in Tom’s life because she never really finished with Jenny.
That reason for her return is one of the few aspects of the heroine’s life that’s not explained and explained and explained. “Complete Unknown” casts a wonderful spell in the early going, which Marston and Sheppard then break when they start demystifying everything. One of the movie’s best scenes has Jennifer forcing Tom to walk in her shoes, by coming up with new characters for them to play when they encounter an older couple (played by Kathy Bates and Danny Glover) who needs their help. In addition to being an exciting acting exercise — performed by four of the greats — that 10-minute stretch of “Complete Unknown” shows just how thrilling it can be to pretend, without anyone needing to talk a lot about it.
After that scene, the film loses momentum, as it narrows its scope just to Tom and Jennifer. She shows him what Alice’s life is like, taking him to the Long Island amphibian research facility where she’s been working, and though there are some lovely moments out in the moonlit swamps among the frogs, after a while the creeping pace begins to feel less meaningful and more like a case of Marston and Sheppard being unsure where to go next. It’s as though “Complete Unknown” pulls a Jenny and attempts a sudden reinvention.
In theory, that’s a clever, creative move. But it’s odd for a movie to start out so tense and eventful and then taper off as dramatically as “Complete Unknown” does. The film doesn’t have its own heroine’s knack for improvisation, or her drive for closure. Marston and Sheppard have come up with a terrific premise, and have worked it into an often highly entertaining movie. But after a while, all the narrative ellipses and question marks start to feel like an affectation — beguiling on the surface, but un-genuine. [B-]