Imagine you have awoken to find yourself riding the F train toward Coney Island, bizarrely underdressed and without any idea where you are going or who you are. Amnesia, per the Psychiatric Dictionary, is the most often faked mental anomaly—the plot device that powered countless film noirs and soap operas, as well as recent American foreign policy and Rupert Murray’s haunting if sketchy doc Unknown White Male.
Hopefully hyped as the real-life correlative to Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Unknown White Male
recounts the story of that mysterious subway passenger. Processed by cops, brought to a terrifying hospital ER, and identified by the luck of a stray phone number in his pocket, he turns out to be one Doug Bruce, a British-born stockbroker with a Noho loft. The information doesn’t bring back Bruce’s memory, but it does establish the movie’s jet-set ambience. His former girlfriend returns from Poland to nurse him; later, he flies to Spain to meet his family for the “first time”; after that, he visits London, city of his birth yet terra incognita, where with a notable absence of enthusiasm, he encounters old mates. The filmmaker is one such forgotten crony, suitably baffled by Bruce’s transformation: “The more we talked, the less I recognized the person in front of me.”
What is personality? the movie wonders. Is it a factor of essence or experience? Free to redefine himself through his actions, Bruce seems a new person—much nicer, to judge from old home videos of his earlier lads-abroad vacation trips. In fact, he’s almost a baby. Like proud parents we can vicariously enjoy his first taste of chocolate mousse and initial dip in the ocean. Everything is wow—as if, the filmmaker notes, Bruce’s “senses had been sharpened by a rebooting of the system.” The mind-altered excitement is accentuated by the tripped-out quality of Murray’s fragmented, rough-hewn style.
To call this story unbelievable is to say the very least. If it’s a hoax, Bruce is a fantastic actor (but then, the movie suggests, so are we all). If not, you may wonder less about Bruce’s personality than his condition. No convincing medical or psychological explanation is ever given; Bruce is a walking metaphor, even a miracle. This “unknown white male” has been granted a second chance, born again into a state of grace.
By the time Bruce meets a new woman in London and falls in love, he has begun to worry that his memory might return. The movie ends happily, without telling us if it ever has. “Blessed are the forgetful,” as the receptionist quoted Nietzsche in Eternal Sunshine, “for they get the better even of their blunders. . . . Found it in my Bartlett’s.”