Joshua Marston’s “Complete Unknown” is an uneasy blend of romantic drama and psychological thriller; there’s an odd tension in the filmmaking that works both for and against it. Its central character, a woman (Rachel Weisz) who calls herself Alice, is a human shape-shifter; a person who has moved through her adult life changing her name, her look, her job, her life. The film’s early moments bring us a kaleidoscope of her past — as a nurse, a magician’s assistant, a businesswoman — before it settles in for the main event: one evening, at the home of Tom (Michael Shannon), who knew Alice back when she was Jenny. “You’re alive,” he says to her, in both wonderment and horror.
As a pleasant dinner party turns painfully awkward, “Complete Unknown” becomes, for a large part of its brief running time, a two-actor showcase: Tom and Alice meet, confront, walk the Brooklyn streets (moodily dark, with traffic lights like bright lollipops) and talk about identity. She is, we learn, addicted to storytelling; to the moment when, as a blank slate, she can begin to draw a picture of herself anew. And Tom, initially repelled, finds himself drawn in when Alice creates a new fiction that evening with a pair of kind strangers. He’s intoxicated, if only briefly, by the possibilities.
Because these actors are Weisz, on whose beautiful face emotions flicker like fireflies, and Shannon, whose faintly mournful expressions imply a profound story not yet told, the film is never less than interesting. But this story of a cipher, ultimately, is a cipher itself. Despite the performers’ skill and Marston’s elegant visual sense, we leave “Complete Unknown” still not quite sure who Alice was. By its end, she’s slipped away again; like the movie, leaving little trace.
Rated: R for some language. Starring: Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates. Director: Joshua Marston. Running time: 90 minutes. Theater: Flicks.