Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Movie Review: Complete Unknown

I saw an early screening of Complete Unknown. I can't give it a strong recommendation, but if you do see it, I recommend going in completely blind. It's a Michael Shannon movie, that was enough for me to want to see it. Rachel Weisz is always interesting too. It's the writer/director of Maria Full of Grace which I loved.

Unfortunely, the movie is structured a bit oddly. For the first few minutes you don't really know what's going on, but you can follow it and figure out what character traits the filmmaker is trying to get across. Then there's a significant scene that's played as a mystery for no great reason (more on that later). The problem is that any description of the movie will give this mystery away. Even the one sentence IMDb blurb gives it away. Any normal person (that is not a movie freak) chooses to see a movie based on some description of it and virtually any description of this film will spoil the mystery of this scene. But it's not important to the story, the mystery is resolved shortly thereafter and the story proper continues. It's just an unnecessary and I think ill conceived choice for the film.

So, if the above is enough to make you want to see it, stop reading now. If you want to be spoiled or want to read this after seeing the film, please continue.


The IMDb blurb:

As a man contemplates moving to a new state with his wife for her graduate program, an old flame - a woman who often changes identities - reenters his life at a birthday dinner party.

Weisz is thisi woman, Alice. The opening few minutes you see a few of her previous identies in quick scenes. Sometimes wordless, sometimes with dialog where you can't see her face, so it comes across as voice over. it reminded me of Beneath the Harvest Sky which had the camera follow characters so you mostly saw their backs and it was difficult for a while to figure out which character was which (or even how many there were) because you didn't see their faces. During the Q&A the director said it was deliberate to make her past more mysterious. Which is a really odd thing to want to do while introducing the character to the audience. More on that later.

So you see her meet a guy in a cafeteria, he's Tom's (Michael Shannon) co-worker. Then we go to Tom's house, we meet his wife as they're preparing for a party and ultimately we find the friend is invited and he's bringing Alice to meet his friends for the first time. For contrived reasons Tom himself is the last to arrive and stares at Alice and makes some pointed comments about her stories. The fact that he knows her, they dated and she disappeared (from him and her family) is kept as a mystery to the audience. It builds a little tension (which Shannon is great at) but it's irrelevant to the stroy.

They story is about identity. The director said so in the Q&A and it's pretty obvious from the rest of the film. So why have the first third of the movie be this mystery? Particularly one that's going to be ruined by any description of the film?

The story is this, Alice has reinvented herself many times and now feels kind of trap by these choices because it's left some holes in her life. Tom has a fine life, a great house, wonderful wife but seems trapped in a job he isn't getting enough satisfaction from, which is perhaps a more common situation. Let's compare and contrast these extremes and what happens when they bump into each other. That's an interesting story and these are good actors to dramtize it, but the film wants to walk around it.

In the Q&A we learned that the director worked out her various past lives and some moral issues in them. He hints at them in the beginning and by hint I mean shows someone in a shot before you really understand what you're seeing. And then never follows up on it. So in one of these past identies she was a stepmom and what did that mean to her? Did she know going into it that she would leave this kid? And what would that do to the kid? All interesting questions. All left out of the film. Apparently there was more of the dinner party scene which was cut where the characters debated some aspects of identity, which is the point of the film. Instead he choose to spend time on her current odd profession, a biologist studying a new species of frog. In the last act we see frogs croaking for almost a full minute. Yup.

And then there's a part of the Q&A that made the movie worse for me. I'm going to spoil most of the ending here. Tom and his wife Ramina (Azita Ghanizada) are debating a big life choice (it's in the IMDb blurb). Obviously spending time with Alice has influenced his decision. At the end, he returns to Ramina and starts to talk about his decision (though he's treated her badly all night so he had other things he should have explained first). So he walks in, she's sitting in a chair in the living room, he sits on the coffee table in front of her and says I've been thinking... I was thinking to myself, "don't cut to black". The film didn't, but it did cut to Weisz and then ends. Now it was clear to me as to what Shannon had chosen. When asked in the Q&A the director said he "didn't think it was ambiguous" but it was a taste choice, he'd rather the audience have to work a little to be more engaged with the film.

I'm sorry, you can't have it both ways. If it's not ambiguous then the audience isn't working for it. If it's not stated then there is some ambiguity in the scene. And I think it's just lazy. Sure I can assume what he says, but I can sit at home and assume a story. I came to the movies to see a story, one that the filmmaker worked hard to create. Write the scene and show me Michael Shannon having a difficult conversation with his wife about a big life decision. That would be drama (particularly because she has reason to be angry with him) and it would be interesting and it would probably be better than I could imagine, because Michael fucking Shannon doesn't come to my home and act out the stories I imagine.

Don't leave out the climax of your film, write amazing dialog and dramatize your story. And don't waste time in your film telling a different story than the one you're trying to tell.

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