When disaster strikes close to home, it's natural to seek a larger meaning and context to the events at hand. It's less common to ask an audience to seek the answers you can't find. But that's essentially what director Rupert Murray does with his sincere, fitfully fascinating, but still somewhat hollow documentary Unknown White Male. In 2003, a friend of Murray's, 35-year-old British photographer Douglas Bruce, experienced a rare form of total retrograde memory loss while living in New York: While doctors could find no physical trauma or other medical explanation, Bruce completely lost his identity and his past. Over more than a year, Bruce videotaped his own experiences, and Murray observed and shepherded his buddy through initial jarring encounters with everything from unremembered family members to the ocean to chocolate mousse.
Bruce's amnesia prompts obvious but difficult questions, particularly about how much personality and identity stem from personal history. Murray asks the questions, but has no answers, and neither do the many talking heads he asks. They agree that Bruce is different now, and that his amnesia puts them in awkward positions, but they fumble weakly and repetitively for lasting insight. And since most of the documentary's action is hidden securely inside Bruce's head, Murray compensates by filling the screen with stock footage, random images, distorted fisheye-lens shots, and aggressive montages seemingly designed to numb his viewers into a slack-jawed, semi-stoned wonder that will equal Bruce's initial lost bafflement.
Unknown White Male has flashes of brilliance: Murray stretches out the dramatic tale of Bruce's first terrifying hours of recall, and Bruce's raw misery as he recounts those events is deeply affecting. And the frankness of his early frustrations leads to stunning, poignant moments, as when Bruce's father casually states that Bruce should consult his family on any questions about how he should think or act in the future. "What makes their judgment right over somebody else's?" Bruce asks. His father's surprised look and the ensuing uncomfortable silence as he considers the question speaks volumes. But as Bruce grows used to his new life, and Murray runs out of tense discoveries to exploit, the film gradually peters out, and it finally weakly throws its rhetorical questions about identity back in the audience's lap. Ultimately, virtually all Murray can say is "It was so weird that this happened to us," and "Wow, wouldn't it be weird if it happened to you, too?"