Leaving everything behind and starting over from scratch is a typical fantasy. But most people wouldn’t actually do it. Aside from a paralyzing fear of change, we have other things tethering us to our current lives – family, friends, pets, a lease or mortgage, the security of a job.
Still, it’s a tantalizing prospect: If you could walk away from everything, where would you go? What would you do?
Those are the questions at the core of “Complete Unknown,” which Joshua Marston (“Maria Full of Grace”) directed, and co-wrote with Julian Sheppard. The drama, which hits theaters Friday, delivers a solid mystery story, but its greatest asset may be what a conversation-starter it could be.
Rachel Weisz plays a woman who hasn’t just walked away and started over; she’s done it several times. She was a piano prodigy for a while, then a hippie backpacking around Central America. She was an ER nurse, but also lived in Asia for a spell, getting sawed in half every night at a magic show. She had a 9-to-5 job, too, with the skirt suits to prove it. And every time she switched careers, she changed her name and backstory.
In her latest iteration, as the movie opens, she’s Alice, a scientist doing research about a new species of frog. She’s also scheming to find a way to reunite with a man from her past life: Tom, played by Michael Shannon.
She succeeds by scoring a date to his birthday party and, while Tom plays it relatively cool during their introduction, he’s clearly troubled by seeing a woman from his past he once knew as Jenny.
Things really get interesting during dinner, though. That’s when Alice comes clean in front of Tom’s friends about what she’s been up to. The debate that ensues is heated. Some romanticize what she’s done as marvelously bold; others believe she might be a sociopath.
“Her character (is) this bomb that goes off in a room that polarizes people,” Marston said recently over the phone. “But do people have a negative reaction to her because what she does is genuinely problematic, or is it because we’re looking for some reason or excuse not to follow through?”
Before the editing process, that conversation was a lot longer, as the party guests hashed out the morality of reinvention.
“We realized that actually it’s much more powerful to have less of that debate onscreen because viewers are really smart and, to some degree, they’re already running through those questions and thoughts in some portion of their mind as they’re watching the movie,” he said. “Or they walk out of the theater and they have that whole long conversation.”
Eventually Alice and Tom end up wandering the streets of New York at night talking about their lives. Where Alice seems to be getting tired of her itinerant ways, Tom has a more typical First World problem – he’s stuck in a rut at middle age. His wife wants them to move to San Diego, but he’ll find any excuse to stay put and keep living in the house where he grew up.
That may sound sad, but is it sadder than the fact that Alice hasn’t seen her parents in more than a decade? Is she an aspirational figure or a monster?
In the online era, there may be something additionally enticing about living anonymously or off the grid. Our movements are so relentlessly chronicled with social media, and Marston had to touch on that to some extent with the movie. At one point, a new acquaintance Googles Alice’s name and finds evidence, which she digitally planted, proving she is who she says she is.
So that raises another question: Has the internet made it harder to do what Alice does? Or easier?
“There’s some way in which there’s always a footprint behind you, but there’s also the possibility of invention in front of you in social media,” the director said. “You can create a new Twitter account or Facebook feed at a moment’s notice.”
Alice is deceitful but, especially played by the magnetic Weisz, also sympathetic. She makes living out a wild fantasy seem almost rational, if very lonely.
Even after pondering the idea of starting over for years while working on the drama, Marston still sees the allure. He even still dreams of starting over.
“Roughly every other day,” he said with a laugh.