If you could slough off the life you'd built every few years and reinvent yourself as a whole new person, would that be a great escape or evidence of severe psychic damage? It's a great premise to lift off from, and I only wish that the overwrought but undercooked new drama, Complete Unknown, stepped up with a sharper idea of what it wanted to talk to us about. Especially with the suitably inward Rachel Weisz and Michael Shannon on hand to deepen the enigma and then open it up.
In an artfully foggy opening sequence, Weisz appears severally as a teacher, an emergency room nurse, and a Chinese magician's assistant who gets cut in half. She looks none too happy in any of these roles, including her current incarnation as Alice, a biologist freshly returned to Brooklyn from a frog-hunting expedition in the Tasmanian rain forest. Wangling her way into a birthday dinner for her former lover Tom, a bemused grouch played by Shannon at half mast, Alice rattles what looks to be his already wobbly marriage to Ramina (a charming Azita Ghanizada), a kind and beautiful jewelry designer who may be moving to San Diego. For his part Tom looks far from thrilled to see Alice, whom he knew as Jennifer when she vanished from his life fifteen years earlier without notice. He's still pissed, which may be gilding the narrative lily a bit.
Complete Unknown is a departure from realist territory for director Joshua Marston, whose first feature was the excellent 2004 drug-mule drama Maria Full of Grace. Like Alice, the film seems to be making itself up as it goes along, which would be fine with a less expository script than the one Marston wrote with Julian Sheppard, and with fewer showy gestures at the surreal. After much dinner chatter, with the assembled guests alternately marveling and pursing their lips at this stranger who's dropping coy hints at a murky past, Alice and a quietly seething Tom take to the streets for the night. There they keep busy trading old grievances until they stumble into a suspiciously jolly stranger played by Kathy Bates, whose mere presence is ordinarily enough to perk up almost any stalled plotting. Not here: Hamming her way through a sudden injury, Bates propels her helpful new friends homeward. There waits her devoted Haitian husband (Danny Glover), brandishing a bafflingly unmotivated lurch into slapstick horror. What is that sheep's head doing on the kitchen table?
It's not enough to give us a giggle or a fright, or even to motivate a fine, mischievous moment in which prissy Tom, lamenting his own dull existence ("Basically, I send e-mails"), discovers that lying one's way into a false identity is more fun than he could have imagined. Complete Unknown could use more of this fleeting lightness of heart, to say nothing of some deeper light-shedding on why Alice keeps running away from her selves. Instead the movie mires itself in facile background psychologizing, whereupon Alice makes Tom a proposal that's been lumbering our way in full view from Word One.
Would that the movie had enough flesh on its bones to make us hang in for the answer. We leave Tom to his decision, and Alice, plus or minus pseudonyms, to hers. She cuts a haunting figure for sure, but one that's almost as completely unknown as when we found her.