What is it about staying in one place–relegated to one life–that drives so many people crazy? Joshua Marston, best known for his 2004 film, Maria Full of Grace, explores the complexities of this question with his latest, Complete Unknown, which marks his first English language movie. For those who go into the narrative initially unaware of its backstory, the disjointed, often jarring shots of Alice (Rachel Weisz) at the beginning as she performs different activities in different incarnations (magician’s assistant included) can be somewhat confusing. But it all comes together after Alice searches for Clyde (Michael Chernus) on her computer and manufactures an encounter with him in the lunch room cafeteria near his Midtown Manhattan office.
As the two seemingly strike up a rapport based on Alice’s research work on a new breed of frogs (an appropriate symbol of rebirth–particularly in one scene that vaguely conjures comparisons to Magnolia) specifically dwelling on Long Island, Clyde ends up inviting her to a birthday party of his friend and colleague, agricultural lobbyist Tom (Michael Shannon, continuing to wither away since his role in The Iceman), who we catch an intimate glimpse of as he prepares for his fête with his wife, Ramina (Azita Ghanizada). Sitting on their bed together, Tom makes an especial note to compliment her on her “gorgeous” necklace, which we later find out she made herself, explaining why she’s so adamant about moving to San Diego to take advantage of a two-year jewelry program she was accepted into. The contention over this move escalates just as the party is about to start, but is forced to take a backseat when Tom sees that his cake reads, “Happy Birthday Tony” instead of “Happy Birthday Tom.” In his absence while at the bakery to attempt remedying the dessert, Tom’s guests begin to show up, Clyde and Alice included.
As Ramina and the others “get to know” Alice, they’re each impressed with her intellect and profession, making Clyde all the more convinced that she could be more than merely a friend–if she was willing. But once Tom returns to his house, it quickly becomes clear that Alice’s true interest lies in being able to speak with him. Tom’s near instant recognition of the girl he knew fifteen years ago as Jenny is precisely what she wanted out of the encounter, admitting to him later that, “I needed to see someone who knew me.” But before the two can steal a moment alone together to discuss her motives–her chutzpah–for showing up after her mysterious disappearance into the abyss over a decade ago, Tom is allowed the opportunity to passive aggressively accuse Alice of being essentially heartless as she tells the dinner table of strangers how she first reinvented herself as Consuelo (her Spanish name in high school) while visiting Mexico for eighteen months. After, when she went to Portland, she transformed into hipster-y Connie. What she reserves for telling Tom later is that the novelty of being Connie wore off eventually, and she felt trapped–worse, bored. So she kept on doing it, changing identities with as little effort as some people change clothes.
When the party transitions to a dance club after the same tense argument between Ramina and Tom about moving to California surfaces again, it becomes evident to everyone that there is something, indeed, very pathological about Alice, who is caught in the midst of a magic trick she says she learned while living in China, leading Clyde to question, “Wait, I thought you were in Tasmania.” Suddenly all too aware of her need to make herself scarce, Alice excuses herself from the club, prompting Tom to do the same soon after so he can catch up with her. Out on the street, they can at last speak openly with one another, Tom wanting desperately to understand why and how she could simply vanish without remorse–without worrying about the effect it has on those who care about her.
At that moment, an aging woman named Nina (Kathy Bates) and her dog interrupt their conversation as the dog cozies up to Alice. After a bit of small talk, Nina starts to walk away, only to collapse right in Tom and Alice’s midst. Proving the point to Tom that “it’s like a high” to change one’s identity, invent one’s own backstory, the two help Nina back to her apartment where her husband, Roger (Danny Glover), awaits. Getting “Tony” into the role of osteopath, Alice encourages Tom to examine Nina’s arthritic condition. Unable to resist the temptation to make it up as he goes along, Tom later confesses that he couldn’t stop, that it was like being hypnotized.
With more insight into why she’s addicted to reinvention, Tom brings up the original version of who he knew her as: a piano prodigy who came to all the parties at his college even though she didn’t go there. Conceding that he was in awe of her over her talent and discipline, Alice balks, “You liked the idea of who I was.” This notion that a person sees someone as they want to is an iconic symptom of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with Paul Varjak (George Peppard) refusing to view Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) as anything other than the wounded “free spirit” who needs to be saved. Because that’s what he wants to see. Like Alice, Holly, too, remakes herself when the situation occasions it–her original self being Lula Mae Barnes from Texas. But that isn’t who she wanted to be, nor someone she could stand to be. The pull of identity renewal is too strong to deny it in favor of a life of being “one’s self,” an arbitrary term as, according to Alice, “You are who you say you are.”
Those at the party who remind Alice of the old adage, “Wherever you go, there you are,” prompt her to respond, “People who say that are too afraid to change.” Indeed, Paul, too, uses this sort of logic on Holly, chastising, “Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.” But for girls like Alice and Holly, there is no greater life than the one characterized by the freedom of being able to become another person at a moment’s notice. “There is this moment when you’re a blank slate,” Alice remarks wistfully. That kind of superpower, in a sense, to be born again and again in a single life is what keeps Alice hooked–forever on the run.
Alice, like, Holly, notes of getting close to others, “People think they know you and they want to lay claim to you.” And for so many, this is the antithesis of liberty. At the same time, and irony of ironies, Alice and Holly each end up wanting to be with the person who knows her best of all.