A young man wakes up on a subway train bound for Coney Island. As the foreboding landscape rolls by, he realizes that he doesn't know where he is going or where he has come from. As his mind sorts its way backward, trying to find the last detail remembered, the man realizes that he not only no longer knows where he is, but he also doesn't know his own name. After turning himself in to the authorities, he is transferred from police station to medical hospital and then finally to mental ward, where he will be locked away until someone who knows him comes to claim him. He has awakened into a new and unfamiliar world, wearing only shorts and flip flops and carrying a backpack that contains few clues to his identity, just a pink slip of paper with a name and phone number on it. The phone number belongs to an elderly woman who sort of recognizes his voice, but can't identify him and is unable to come to the young man's assistance.
Unknown White Male unfolds in nightmarish detail, a camera set to permanent fish eye travels streets and hallways, searching and not finding, each image distorted, each new scenario unfamiliar and horrifying. The pulse races as the man's situation worsens. Without his identity, he is helpless. He is now in the care of the state. How will he reach back into the life forgotten, grab hold of anyone or anything and pull himself out of the rabbit hole of lost memory and into the safety of day to day existence? His name is Doug Bruce and his story is being told by his friend, Rupert Murray, a documentary filmmaker who picked up his own camera on hearing of Doug's ordeal and rushed to both the story and his chum's aid.
It seems that Doug has lost his episodic memory and, after myriad tests that uncover a lesion on his pituitary gland and nothing more, none of the doctors presented with the case can explain why. Apparently, though very rarely, some people just lose their memories. Perhaps it is an unexplained physical condition or a reaction to an emotional event. Most of the police and hospital workers in the film describe Doug's amnesia as "movie amnesia," something they've seen on television but have never come across in real life. And, even though this is a true story, there is something very "movie" about it. Perhaps it is because this kind of amnesia occurs so frequently in the rarefied world of the soap opera, and it usually turns out that the character is faking. The film feels like the least real documentary I have seen in years.
Perhaps it is just too difficult to face the inexplicable. As the film unfolds we begin to understand that no explanation is forthcoming -- that there will be no attempt to investigate the events preceding Doug's amnesia, and if there was, they might not serve as an explanation. The images unravel, the film is unresolved, there is no dramatic discovery, no climax where the event becomes clear and everything falls into place. Reality is tricky that way, not conforming to dramatic structure nor offering up easy answers. But something about this film just feels disingenuous. Even though Unknown White Male was loaded with imagery that evoked the main character's loss, his search for self and his eventual resolve to move on, a part of my mind kept wondering if the film wasn't an elaborate hoax. Why? Why couldn't my mind except that something catastrophic had happened to another mind, that another mind just woke up blank? Is it too scary to fathom? Does it threaten my own existence and identity by pointing out how tenuous they are?
I have to admit that there was something dodgey about Doug's character. Both before and after the incident, Doug feels unreliable. This would make sense for someone who has lost his memory, who couldn't remember who he was and was in the process of becoming someone new. At the beginning of the film, you can certainly see how traumatic the experience is for him, but once his community comes together to provide him with support -- a community of women, each one lovelier and more intelligent than the last, and we discover that Doug is an independently wealthy citizen of the world, slipping from his New York loft to visit his father and sister in Spain, then on to his dead mother's house in Paris, back to art school in New York and then to a reunion with the lads in London. I drifted away from Doug and started thinking how much different this situation would have been for someone without wealth and privilege. Though the actual occurrence wouldn't have been more real for the poor man than the rich one, how much more REAL would it have been for a poor man than a rich one, forgetting how to do his job or trying to navigate the health care system? It doesn't make the story any less dramatic or the film any less well made. It's just where my mind wandered. The mind is a weird thing.