As its title implies, Complete Unknown is a film best vetted as a blind experience, unraveling with a smug reluctance to fully expose itself until the moment is right. Joshua Marston’s often opaque, consistently alluring third feature follows a mysterious woman, who, much like the film built around her, buckles under expectation, thriving only when given the freedom of autonomy.
Jenny (Rachel Weisz) is a woman on the run—not from a criminal past or a troubled relationship, but from the anxiety that comes with denying her own existence. A pathological liar and serial denier of reality, Jenny spends the bulk of her days masking the pain of whirlwind youth as she assumes new identities at will—nine in total since abandoning a prodigious life as a master pianist.
Floating from continent to continent, Jenny takes on the role of magician’s assistant in Hong Kong, a hipster in Portland, and a teacher warming an Australian lover’s bed in Sydney. As we enter the picture, she’s settled in New York as a biologist named Alice, heeding a call from her distant past to reconnect with an estranged lover, Tom (Michael Shannon), after manipulating her way back into his life on the eve of his birthday some 15 years after renouncing him. To reveal what happens next would do a great disservice to the complex web Complete Unknown weaves, one anchored by Weisz’s transfixing performance.
Like he did with Catalina Sandino Moreno in 2004’s Maria Full of Grace, Marston delicately trains his focus on a dynamic female—arguably the more interesting half of the film’s focal pair—crumbling as a stark reality chips away at her sanity. Weisz meets her director halfway, offering a window into an isolated moment in Jenny’s ever-evolving life. She at once brings the emotional weight of the character’s past incarnations to the forefront of every line she utters without losing sight of the budding vulnerabilities at Jenny’s feet.
Complete Unknown is perhaps most titillating when it quietly observes moments between its central duo, two long-lost lovers hurling nearly two decades’ worth of unresolved pain at each other over the course of a single evening. There’s a particularly moving scene in which Jenny recounts the first time she laid eyes on Tom and, given her predisposition to spout falsities, we’re never privy to the story’s legitimacy. As Tom affectionately gazes into her eyes, however, it’s clear that the validity of her words doesn’t really matter when there’s more than enough passion to fill in the blanks between them. That’s the electrifying edge Complete Unknown dances upon, and it’s worth the tango on our end; with a lover, the line between reality and façade means nothing in the face of red-hot attraction, when the gateway to a higher truth can sometimes exist on the irresistible lips of a liar. B+