“We are what we pretend to be so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” That lucite pearl of wisdom, which appears in the introduction of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 novel “Mother Night” and then reverberates beneath the rest of its pages, is as much of a warning as it is an invitation. Many of the great filmmakers have dedicated their lives to sifting through the truth of Vonnegut’s words — or at least that of the principle expressed therein — using that sentiment as a starting point from which to dive into the bottomless void of the human psyche.
“Maria Full of Grace” director Joshua Marston, who has struggled to live up to the promise of that stirringly urgent debut, is not one of the great filmmakers. Identity is a construct, relationships are a performance and love is a fiction that only endures for as long as two people can be convinced that it’s real — “Complete Unknown” tells us these things over and over again, Marston’s inert and hyper-literal new drama rehashing Vonnegut’s sentiment in a hundred different ways rather than mining it for any semblance of compelling drama or deeper truth.
Rachel Weisz stars as Constance, or Paige, or — as she’s known for the brunt of the film — Alice, a chameleon of a woman who has lived any number of lives. She’s been a field worker in Tanzania, a magician’s assistant in China and a trauma doctor in an emergency room, and she flips between all of these identities (among others) in a captivatingly slippery prologue that courses with a short-lived sense of endless possibility.
For Tom (Michael Shannon), “endless possibility” is something of a foreign concept. Middle-aged and married to the wife (Azita Ghanizada) with whom he shares his childhood home, Tom is anchored to the man he’s made of himself, and threatened by anything that threatens to unmoor him. But that’s not the only reason why Tom is immediately uneasy when a co-worker brings Alice — an outspoken free spirit who’s quick to charm a crowd with tales of her nomadic past — to one of his dinner parties. Marston’s script, co-written with Julian Sheppard, doesn’t share its mysterious heroine’s flair for keeping secrets: Hardly 20 minutes have passed before Tom pulls Alice aside and tells her that he knows who she is, that he knows her real name. He tells her that they have a history together. They’ll spend the rest of the night trying to unpack it.
That means talking — a lot of talking.
“Complete Unknown,” to its credit, doesn’t hinge on ham-fisted suspense — on the contrary, it deals with its subject so directly that the characters are suffocated beneath the ideas that they’re meant to represent. As Tom and Alice split off from the rest of the crowd and begin sifting through their divergent pasts, the film descends into a sub-Linklater all-nighter in which Weisz, tantalizingly predatory at the start, is soon forced to explain all of the things that she might have used to silently inform a richer and more interesting role.
Shadowy and seductive, she does a great job of making every revelation feel as though it’s shrouded in half-truths and ulterior motives, but the script refuses to give her anything to do but lay out her life plan. A befuddled Tom asks questions, and a philosophically secure Alice responds with cagey answers like “I fill my characters out until they’re finished.” The parallels to an actor’s existence make themselves, obvious and unexplored. Yes, identity is performative. No, flatly stating that commonly accepted fact is not enough to support 90 minutes of white noise.
Shannon, for his part, is better at being tight-lipped than most actors are at talking, but his typical menace feels miscast in this everyman role, which requires him to do little more than interrogate his co-star. Shannon’s natural undercurrent of anger helps articulate why all of the party guests turn on Alice as soon as they learn that her story doesn’t totally add up — people resent being deceived for all sorts of reasons — but he’s mostly wasted. Even a scene in which Tom and Alice encounter an older couple (forgettably performed by Kathy Bates and Danny Glover) and Tom tries on a new identity is dulled by Marston’s flat direction, which makes this supposedly fateful night feel like just another casual encounter between strangers.
The film’s best moments are hollow and derivative, as borrowed from better fictions as any of the names that Alice takes for herself. Often, this is to the story’s immediate detriment — Marston doesn’t do himself any favors by invoking “Closer” with his final shot, as that Mike Nichols adaptation teased similar ideas in far more articulate and nuanced ways, and was a great deal more cinematic to boot.
What does it mean to truly know somebody? Is it even possible? These questions have hounded cinema since before the medium even knew to ask them, but rarely have they been asked with less purpose.
“Complete Unknown” opens in theaters on Friday, August 26.