I have a habit of putting Rachel Weisz movies in my to-watch queue, because she’s one of those actors who tends to choose interesting roles in quality projects. Complete Unknown (2016) is another example, a mysterious drama that first generates an intriguing atmosphere, then decodes it to reveal a quiet, thoughtful character study.
Weisz portrays Alice Manning, a research biologist working in New York City. Alice seems a normal enough person, but she shows signs of a hidden agenda, which manifests in the form of a wily social-engineering operation. The goal: work herself into the life of Tom (Michael Shannon). Or is it back into his life? When she turns up at Tom’s birthday party on the arm of Tom’s co-worker and friend Clyde (Michael Chernus), Tom recognizes her from his past, but her name and the details of her life don’t match up to his memory. As he begins to unravel the situation, their mutual history comes to light, challenging Tom to re-evaluate his life decisions.
Complete Unknown is a subtle, slow-building mystery that serves as a terrific showcase for nuanced performances by Weisz and Shannon. Its patient narrative energy is occasionally distancing, but it makes up for it by teasingly laying out intriguing questions that demand answers. When the answers come, they demystify the surface scenario somewhat, but the film then shifts gears to focus on a nicely defined character dynamic between the leads. The resulting journey turns out to be a thought-provoking, even-handed meditation on identity and how the expectations of family and community can turn into stultifying life patterns — but also how those patterns are best not completely discarded. Not flashy, but a classy and interesting film.