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Rachel Weisz Makes Identity Negotiable In 'Complete Unknown'

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 6, 2016 4:11PM

Rachel Weisz is the unexpected party guest in "Complete Unknown." (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios/IFC Films.)

Living "off the grid" takes on a much deeper meaning in Complete Unknown, a compelling character study bolstered by excellent performances—especially that of Rachel Weisz as a woman constantly reinventing herself to the point of supreme deception.

It seems to be the season of Weisz, with the British actress in two current releases (she also co-stars with Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander in The Light Between Oceans) and soon to be seen in Denial, opening in early October. What's always made Weisz an actress worth watching, beyond her talent, is her consistently eclectic career path. Few safe commercial bets dot her resume.

The same could be said of her co-star, Michael Shannon. The Chicago stage veteran (and continuing member of A Red Orchid Theatre) with the distinctive, sometimes purposefully alienating screen presence, can be an uncomfortable fit in a mainstream blockbuster like Man of Steel. But watch him in less conventional fare like Midnight Special, Bug or HBO's Boardwalk Empire and you see why he's held in such high regard by risk-taking directors like Jeff Nichols and Werner Herzog.

In Complete Unknown, Shannon plays Tom, wholly dedicated to his job as an agricultural lobbyist, even though it seems to bring him little happiness. His work is causing conflicts with the ambitions of his jewelry designer wife (Azita Ghanizada) as they get ready to celebrate his birthday with friends. One of his co-workers brings a newcomer, Alice (Weisz), to the party.

Alice is not a new face to Tom, however. He was romantically involved with her back when she called herself Jenny...more than 15 years ago. We get brief glimpses of some of Alice/Jenny's many incarnations before the party: a Portland-based hipster, a magician's assistant in China, a surgeon in major urban hospital. Her reinventions require destroying her previous identity trail, falsifying a new one and presumably a near-genius level of self-education to take on different, often highly specialized jobs.

But it's working for her—kind of. She has left a trail of heartbreak through her many disappearances and now feels a need to reconnect with someone who knew her before the identity swaps began. That leads her back to Tom.

Michael Shannon and Azita Ghanizada in "Complete Unknown." (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios/IFC Films.)

While this plot could be the groundwork for mystery and suspense, writer-director Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace) and co-writer Julian Sheppard play out the scenario as an intimate character study. Complete Unknown belongs to a small but intriguing group of films that explore the allure of fully disengaging from a discontented life path—even to the point of living a lie. This "cinema of detachment" would include under-appreciated gems like Morvern Callar and Time Out. Like those movies, Complete Unknown is sure to divide viewers between those compelled by its ambiguous qualities and those put off.

Thanks to the terrific performances, even those not fascinated by the movie may have a hard time looking away from it. The supporting cast (including Kathy Bates and Danny Glover in one memorable scene) is also excellent, but the movie belongs to the leads. Weisz and Shannon have long stretches of screen time in which it's just the two of them—Tom trying to fathom his former love's journey, and Alice/Jenny testing to see if he is tempted to be her companion in this labyrinthine existence.

I wish Marston showed visual imagination to match his narrative intelligence. Aside from a disconcerting close-up sequence of countless frogs in a swamp and a resonant closing shot of Weisz's character in the crowd, there isn't much imagery here that demands big-screen viewing.

But the dramatic strengths of Complete Unknown compensate for cinematic shortcomings and Weisz in particular seems to revel in the story's psychological complexities. In a pivotal scene, she clings to Shannon with emotion pouring out, but Weisz has so convincingly made Alice/Jenny an outsider in her own world that you don't know if she is clinging to him...or her last traces of a normal life.

Complete Unknown. Directed by Joshua Marston. Written by Marston and Julian Sheppard. Starring Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates, Danny Glover and Azita Ghanizada. 90 mins. Rated R.

Opens Friday, Sept. 9 at Landmark Theatres Century Centre Cinema. Director Joshua Marston will appear in person for a Q&A following the 7:20 p.m. show on Friday.