If you’ve been following the entertainment news over the past couple of months, you might see the title of the documentary Unknown White Male and think, “Oh yeah, that’s the movie about the amnesiac, right? The one that’s all made up?” But that’s not entirely fair. First off, no one’s proved that the movie’s subject, Doug Bruce, is faking a now-three-year bout of total memory loss; and even if Bruce is a phony, no one’s proved that the documentary’s director, Rupert Murray, is in on the gag. Still, it’s hard not to think about the controversy while watching Unknown White Male, if only because Murray’s wide-eyed take on Bruce’s condition is exactly what makes the movie so frustrating.
For starters, Murray adopts the faux-detached first-person style familiar from so many smugly presumptuous BBC productions. Murray knew Bruce casually when they were young men in the U.K., before Bruce moved to New York, became a stock trader and amassed enough of a fortune that he could retire at 30 to pursue photography. So Murray takes an obtrusively personal approach to telling the story of how Bruce woke up one day in 2003, took a train to Coney Island and gradually entered a fugue state—such that when he disembarked, he still had a sense of how to function as a human being, but no memory of who he was. Unknown White Male’s style is striking, even beautiful, with a flurry of stock footage and well-lit location shots; but between the droning voices of medical experts and Murray’s own romanticizing of his friend’s clean mental slate, the movie is designed to force conclusions, not explore implications.
Of course, Murray’s only taking his cues from Bruce, who seems less interested in recovering who he was than in becoming somebody new. Bruce gets ecstatic over the sight of the ocean, and the taste of chocolate mousse, and when he reads old letters he wrote, he wonders why he wasted so much time obsessing over cricket. Amnesia’s an unusual condition, so it might not be that strange for a man with Bruce’s experience to turn philosophical and lose all desire for nostalgia; but even though Murray acknowledges how hard it’s been on Bruce’s family to have a polite-but-cool visitor in their homes rather than a brother and a son, in the end he’s clearly more sympathetic to the person Bruce has become. This is a medical mystery doubling as a self-help tract: The Amnesia-Driven Life.
There are flashes of the movie Unknown White Male might’ve been. When Bruce visits friends he hasn’t hung out with in years, and they comment on how different he seems, Murray misses the real point, which is whether anyone is the same as he was 10 years ago. Even Bruce’s pre-amnesia condition—wealthy globetrotter with a home base in eclectic, multi-cultural Manhattan—is inherently conducive to a person losing himself. The problem with Unknown White Male is that Murray is so close to Bruce’s story and Bruce’s life that he doesn’t think to ask hard questions, because then he might have to answer them for himself.