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Complete Unknown

Sony Pictures // R // October 4, 2016
List Price: $25.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted October 21, 2016 | E-mail the Author
Tom (Michael Shannon) is supposed to be celebrating his birthday, but he's got too much on his mind to truly relax. His wife, Ramina (Azita Ghanizada) has just scored a really rare two-year academic opportunity across the country in California, which would be great if Tom and his co-worker Clyde (Michael Chernus) weren't on the verge of a minor legal triumph in their low-end government office. More importantly, he's just spotted the woman (Rachel Weisz) Clyde has brought to his party, who is introduced as Alice, a woman who studied frogs in Tasmania and now works across the street from Tom and Clyde, and eats in their cafeteria. She is beautiful, but what's distracting Tom is that he knew her, years before, as an entirely different person.

Complete Unknown is a fascinating movie, one which remains engaging even as it struggles to transform thematic or conceptual ideas into a film that is also compellingly or convincingly about the story it's telling on the surface. The woman, who Tom remembers as Jenny, turns out to have transformed herself multiple times in the years since Tom last saw her, becoming everything from from a magician's assistant in China to a children's heart surgeon. At first, little hints of her fabulous life are impressive and fascinating to Tom's party guests, but as she inadvertently reveals more of them, they start to distrust her, calling her a liar. For Tom, the experience is reversed: he distrusts her on sight, because he remembers who she was when he knew her before, but after they leave his party and end up spending a brief evening talking alone, he starts to discover that in some ways, she might be living a life that he envies.

Part of the reason the movie remains engaging despite its shortcomings is that director Joshua Marston is lucky enough to have two great performers in the form of Weisz and Shannon. Both have the ability to convey a wealth of emotional information even as they're just staring at each other, processing the last thing that's been said to them or the feeling that's just washed over them, which takes up much of the movie's screen time (Tom, trying to understand why Jenny lives like she does, and Jenny processing how her life looks from an outsider's perspective). Shannon, an actor known for his intensity, is relaxed and affable here, imbuing the bizarre premise with a light touch. Calling his performance "comedic" feels too strong, but there's a warmth to it that adds levity to the film. Weisz, obviously, gets to play a whole range of tones and attitudes across her various characters, and what's pleasing about Marston's script, which he co-wrote with Julian Sheppard, is that Jenny is driven by an overall anxiety she doesn't necessarily know how to articulate. Through her performance, one understands the complex psychological comfort she's lacking and might hope to find by reappearing in Tom's life, even if that unique angst of anonymity would be hard to summarize or explain.

After Jenny explains her life to Tom, they have a chance encounter with a local woman (Kathy Bates) who sprains her ankle a few feet away from them, then requires assistance back to their apartment, where her husband (Danny Glover) feeds them meat and cracks some disturbing jokes. In the movie's most intriguing sequence, Jenny pulls Tom into her lifestyle so he can see what it feels like, abruptly inventing a backstory for the two of them while they're in the couple's apartment. Her invention is blended from complete fabrications (she turns Tom into an orthopedic doctor) and emotionally potent truths (the end of their initial relationship), which gives Tom details he can get an emotional foothold on even as he pretends to be someone he's not. There are easy parallels between Jenny's transformations and the experience of being a professional actor that are interesting to think about but somewhat dramatically shallow, too on-the-nose to be exciting, but this sequence goes from stating the experience to allowing the viewer to see Tom and Jenny living those emotions, which is far more effective.

Over the last twenty or thirty minutes, the movie's effectiveness falters along with a sense of clear direction, as Tom and Jenny drift through her current workplace and then back to her apartment, where the movie manages to right itself again with a relatively effective conclusion. Marston handles the film without much fanfare, using shallow depth of field as a major visual element of subtext, with characters fading in and out of focus, on the verge of resolving into someone entirely different at any moment. It's just a shame that he can't quite figure out how to fully fuse the ideas in the film that interest him with something that felt compelling as a character story and compelling as a concept in equal measure. Similar to his cinematography, whenever one of those two elements snaps into focus, the other, frustratingly, fades into the background.

Complete Unknown's two individual posters, one featuring Weisz and one featuring Shannon, have been combined into a single piece of art for the DVD, which features Weisz crumbling into cut up bits of material, and Shannon dissolving into dirt. Visually striking images, if a little less striking cramped together on a single DVD cover, and undermined a bit by the unsubtle (and meaningless) red tint to the "UN" in the title. The one-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Amaray case, and there is no insert.

The Video and Audio
Unlike many other Sony releases, Complete Unknown is not bogged down with six or seven 5.1 tracks and fifteen subtitle options. Instead, you get the basics: a 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen video presentation, Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and English and Spanish subtitles. As a result, compression artifacts in the video are kept to a minimum, with only the faintest, fleeting hints of banding in the soft-focus backgrounds, especially moving ones, if you're really looking for it. The film's shallow depth of field sometimes looks a little smeary, but the disc handles a wealth of shadow detail with impressive stability, and plenty of focus pulling without any issues. Sound is naturalistic, with the ambiance of the city spilling into the background when they're on the street, the authentic thumping of a nightclub, and the slightly muffled claustrophobia of a dinner party.

The Extras
Only one: an informative, well-spoken audio commentary by co-writer/director Joshua Marston. Right from the start, it's clear that Marston has plenty to talk about, managing to fill nearly fifteen minutes just talking about the development and editing of the five minute pre-title sequence. He talks about developing the screenplay with co-writer Julian Sheppard after another project fell through, the casting of Rachel Weisz and Michael Shannon, structuring the film in both a dramatic and technical sense, and the test screening process, among other things. He also drops a Star Trek: The Motion Picture reference, which I appreciate greatly. A worthwhile commentary track.

Surprisingly, there are no other trailers on the disc, not even autoplay trailers.

Fans of Rachel Weisz or Michael Shannon should definitely give Complete Unknown a look, as should those fascinated by the idea but willing to kep their expectations in check. The movie's not completely effective, but there's enough here to warrant a look. Recommended.

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