You think when you wake up in the mornin’ yesterday don’t count,” writes Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men, “but yesterday is all that does count. What else is there? Your life is made out of the days it’s made out of.”
Rachel Weisz’s character in Complete Unknown would likely disagree. She’s spent the last 15 years moving from one identity to the next, leaving a trail of perplexed loved ones — some of whom think she’s dead — in her wake. She can’t hold on to her yesterdays.
We’re treated to an array of impressionistic moments from these past lives as the film opens. Some of them, we understand, may only exist in the stories she tells to the people who pass through her life: Rachel Weisz as a magician’s assistant in China. Rachel Weisz as a dreadlocked hippie moving into a new apartment. Rachel Weisz as a lost soul taking a deep dive into the ocean — and, most likely to little effect, her own psyche.
We don’t at first know what these striking images are or why we’re seeing them, and Joshua Marston’s initial withholding of information can be as frustrating as it is intriguing.
Weisz is currently going by Alice; she was previously known as Jenny — and Vanessa, Sasha, and five other names. Complete Unknown takes as its subject nothing less than the construction of the self, here shown as an especially fluid, ongoing process.
All of us are every day working on becoming the person we’d like to be. Alice just takes a more extreme approach than most. “There’s a moment where you’re a blank slate,” she says, as though crying out to retroactively become a cast member on Lost. “It’s like a high and you’re deciding, 'What next?'”
That’s a good question, and one Marston never entirely answers. Complete Unknown’s moment-to-moment oddity is frequently gripping, but its cumulative effect is probably a lot like knowing Weisz’s character — the feeling quickly moves on, leaving you with little.
Michael Shannon co-stars as Tom, the first victim of Alice’s itinerant ways. (He knew her as Jenny, presumably her actual name.) The two have a chance encounter that isn’t exactly by chance, and what follows is a strange alchemy blending the free-associative imagery of Upstream Color, the strained dinner party of The Invitation, and even the walk-and-talk whimsy of Before Sunrise. Marston has a real feel for the ineffable emotions that draw people together and an equally keen sense of how fragile those forces can be.
In one scene, Alice and Tom meet a woman (Kathy Bates) who sprains her ankle while walking her dog. Helping her to her feet, Alice makes up a life story on the fly: pediatric cardiologist, “just in it for the money,” not romantically linked to Tom. He has no choice but to play along, and during the ensuing charade we sense him coming to understand why this unknowable woman lives the way she does.
Then he catches his reflection in the mirror, seemingly taken aback by the image glancing back at him. Does he like what he sees? Is this other, imagined life somehow more appealing than the one he’s actually leading? Whatever the answer, he doesn’t have the same freedom — or cowardice, or courage, or whatever other force you might ascribe to it — to start a new one. The more he comes to know Alice, the more he realizes he never truly will.
Complete Unknown ultimately has too accurate a title. We understand the impulse driving Alice’s actions, but she and the film itself remain as out of reach to us as she is to the people in her lives.