Director Joshua Marston will be in attendance for post-screening Q&As at Chicago's Landmark Century Centre Cinema on September 9 and 10 at 7:20PM. For additional ticketing information, please click here.
What sort of liar are you? The kind that overelaborates, concealing a lie in superfluous detail that overwhelms the person you lie to? Or perhaps the kind that exaggerates, saying one thing, confessing to the lie, and then submits a lesser, but nevertheless entirely fabricated untruth that somehow seems much more plausible. Or perhaps you maintain a steady gaze, a practiced constitution that is defined by its sobriety, dominating the person you lie to with urgent seriousness.
The scary thing about Alice (Rachel Weisz) is that you can’t really tell. She’ll speak plainly, submitting a life-story that’s filled with fact and fiction. She ornates her travels with distorted half-truths, disguising her intentions and fluidly moving in and out of people’s lives. In a film that’s so often shot in shallow focus, she moves within the frame as an acutely detailed figure only to become a complete blur, consumed in a cavalcade of city lights, there and gone again.
Joshua Marston’s Complete Unknown is an interesting film made exceptional by its formal competencies and persuasive performances. A series of jarring scenes come one after the other in the film’s opening passage, where we find Alice as a crunchy hipster, then as a nurse cooing a patient, then as a magician’s assistant, and finally in bed with a man, where he asks about her background. The confident front she offered in previous scenes has receded as the ignition of her lie is just warming up. We lose sight of her for a bit, settling on New York City, where Marston focuses on the day-to-day of Tom (Michael Shannon). Working on a vital land reform amendment, Tom and his wife Ramina (Azita Ghanizada) are at odds as Ramina has been recently been admitted into a program that will allow her to further her jewelry crafting skills in California. It’s a conflict of timing that generates our first sense of tension between the two, something they will attempt to keep under wraps as they play host to friends: it’s Tom’s birthday.
It goes without saying that Alice serves as an unexpected guest to this party, where a wonderfully eerie series of exchanges populate the first half of the picture. While the plotting of Complete Unknown veers out of Marston and co-writer Julian Sheppard’s grasps in the second half, the tête-à-tête of the party sequence is an incredible piece of chamber-play cinema, in what’s a richly conceived and visually sumptuous exercise in building tension. Part of it comes from Shannon and Weisz’ incredible rapport and capacity to give an incredible close-up. Shannon in particular, with his increasingly pronounced nasolabial folds, radiates intensity with but a pensive glance.
The finer details of the film’s plot are best left discovered. While Complete Unknown is valuable for its identity politics, what struck me most was its sense of pained tenderness. Alice and Tom find themselves confronted with routine tediousness and disappointment, with that existential panic taking on a cumulative aspect that neither person can afford to endure much longer. Whether it be Marston’s vivid framing or the caliber of performances, that feeling is distinctively tangible throughout the picture. It confronts ennui seriously, outlining the difference between staying and retreating to the periphery of life’s frame.