Complete Unknown Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Azita Ghanizada. Directed by Joshua Marston. Rated R. Opens Friday at Regency Tropicana Cinemas.
The pre-credits sequence of Joshua Marston’s Complete Unknown plays like the “Previously on …” teaser for a TV series returning for its sixth or seventh season. In quick succession, Rachel Weisz is a bohemian teacher, a nurse and a magician’s assistant; she sits outside a suburban house in her car, hiding from someone; she plunges into the ocean on a secluded beach. Who is this person? The answer is at first intriguing and then a bit disappointing, as Weisz’s character (going by the name Alice, but known originally as Jennifer) shows up in Brooklyn at a birthday party for Tom (Michael Shannon), who turns out to be her ex-boyfriend from several identities ago.
The more that Tom and the audience learn about Alice and how she lives her life, the less enticing and mysterious she seems. At best, Complete Unknown is like a more grounded, straightforward version of Abbas Kiarostami’s brilliant Certified Copy, following two people as they create a shared fiction that’s just as meaningful as reality. But whereas Kiarostami constantly blurred the lines between playacting and genuine emotion, Marston (known for social-issue dramas Maria Full of Grace and The Forgiveness of Blood) makes those lines clearer and clearer as Alice and Tom spend more time together.
Weisz is fantastic as a woman who slips effortlessly into different personas, and even when the story turns more mundane, she keeps Alice alluring and mischievous. Shannon, playing against type as a straitlaced everyman, is less impressive, but his understated performance balances out Weisz’s more fanciful presence. After laying out the details of a premise that doesn’t really hold up to logical scrutiny, Marston has a tough time bringing his story to a satisfying close, but the ambiguous ending brings back the haunting uncertainty of the opening, with a final shot that suggests hope and regret all at once, without the characters explaining a thing.