Unknown White Male

The greatest mystery surrounding Rupert Murray's impressionistic documentary about a man who's lost his memory is neither whether it's real or an elaborate put-on (as persistent rumors suggest) but why it's so fundamentally unaffecting. The story began on July 2, 2003, when a handsome Englishman found himself on a Coney Island subway train with absolutely...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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The greatest mystery surrounding Rupert Murray's impressionistic documentary about a man who's lost his memory is neither whether it's real or an elaborate put-on (as persistent rumors suggest) but why it's so fundamentally unaffecting. The story began on July 2, 2003, when a handsome Englishman found himself on a Coney Island subway train with absolutely no idea who he was. His backpack contained an odd assortment of items, including a Latin-American Spanish phrase book and a map of New York, but no ID. Confused and frightened, he turned himself in to the police, who in turn handed him off to Coney Island Hospital. Doctors found no physical explanation for his memory loss and diagnosed retrograde amnesia, the rare and severe amnesia much-loved by screenwriters and rarely encountered in real life; usually precipitated by traumatic head injury, it erases episodic memory, the recall of unique, personality-shaping experiences. The "unknown white male" is eventually identified as Douglas Bruce, age 35, born into an apparently wealthy English family that subsequently redistributed itself across Europe. He was a stockbroker until he retired five years earlier to study photography at Manhattan's School of Visual Arts; he lives in a spacious East Village loft and has an international circle of friends, including Murray. Armed with home movies showing Doug and his equally privileged friends carousing in locations ranging from Paris to Mount Everest during the late '80s and '90s, Murray flies to New York to make a film about Bruce's dilemma. The story is a chronicle of reinvention, interspersed with philosophical musings about the nature of identity; losing his memory made Bruce a nicer, more reflective, less driven person, as his various friends and family members — most identified only by first name — attest. Bruce learns that his mother is dead, makes new friends and reconnects with old ones in London, finds a beautiful new girlfriend named Narelle, resumes photography classes, and rediscovers snow, fireworks, and various cuisines, a process Murray attempts to visualize in self-consciously arty montages. Leaving aside the question of whether or not it's a hoax (the filmmakers swear it's on the level), the film's greatest liabilities are Murray, who narrates in the grating style of Nick Broomfield, and Bruce himself. Cushioned by money — which frees him from needing to work and allows him to fly around the world looking for his past — Bruce is attractive and well-spoken but not especially interesting, which leaves a yawning void at the story's center.

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  • Released: 2005
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Review: The greatest mystery surrounding Rupert Murray's impressionistic documentary about a man who's lost his memory is neither whether it's real or an elaborate put-on (as persistent rumors suggest) but why it's so fundamentally unaffecting. The story began on… (more)

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