Even before the title appears, we've learned a lot about the character Rachel Weisz plays in
Characters, that is.
She has moved to Portland, Ore., following months in the rain forests of the Amazon.
She's an ER nurse.
She's a magician's assistant, in Hong Kong.
She's a teacher from the States, recently relocated to the U.K.
She's a serious swimmer.
Wait, didn't she tell her prospective roommate in Portland that she didn't know how to swim?
What's up with this woman who, as Joshua Marston's seriously intriguing mystery kicks into gear, now finds herself in New York. She says she's a biologist. She calls herself Alice.
Like a spy adopting and dropping aliases - or like an actress, for that matter, slipping in and out of roles - Weisz appears wholly committed to whomever she is, wherever she is, whenever that was. This is not The Three Faces of Eve, not Sybil. Her women seem grounded in the real world. They are bright, accomplished, independent.
What's going on?
Marston, who made his directing debut with the haunting 2004 drug-smuggling drama Maria Full of Grace, has found a space between romantic melodrama and enigmatic psychodrama, and he puts Weisz's "Alice" right there in the middle of it. She befriends a guy (Michael Chernus) in an office cafeteria. He brings her along to a birthday party at the house of his colleague and buddy Tom (a subdued Michael Shannon). And when Tom finally locks eyes with Alice, you can see the mental double take, the doubt.
As Alice entertains the dinner guests with tales of her exploits in Tasmania, with her recording of a new species of frog, it becomes clear that Tom, now married to a jewelry designer, Ramina (Azita Ghanizada), knows this other woman - or knew her, long ago.
There's a playlike quality to Complete Unknown (Marston's cowriter, Julian Sheppard, has extensive credits in the theater). That's not a bad thing: The talk is smart. The actors doing the talking are easy to like. There's an older couple, longtime New Yorkers played by Kathy Bates and Danny Glover, who have their own strange, strangely amusing encounter with Alice and Tom. There's a late-night train ride, too, a bit of confirmation and confoundedness at the destination.
Complete Unknown isn't completely successful. The movie brushes up against far-fetched soap-opera scenarios. The ending isn't altogether satisfying.
Yet Weisz, playful and seductive, utterly confident, disarmingly vulnerable, delivers a performance that makes you forget all that. Tour de force, anyone?
*** (Out of four stars)
yDirected by Joshua Marston. With Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Michael Chernus, Azita Ghanizada, Kathy Bates, and Danny Glover. Distributed by IFC Films.
yRunning time: 1 hour, 30 mins.
yParent's guide: R (adult themes).