In July 2003, a 35-year-old Englishman named Doug Bruce, living in New York City as a photography student, woke up on the subway one morning with a case of total amnesia. Not knowing his name, where he lived, or any of his friends, he turned himself into the police and wound up in a mental hospital until a girlfriend's mother was finally contacted, thanks to a cryptic number in his notebook.
Rupert Murray, an old friend of Bruce's from England, decided to document Bruce's return to life as he reconnected with family, friends and himself, even while his memory failed to return. It's a great concept for a movie, but it's also sort of a one-trick pony. Any of us can imagine what would happen if we'd lost all memory of our previous lives – after his incident, Bruce didn't even know what his favorite sport (cricket) was all about, and had never heard of the Rolling Stones – and while the film depicts this accurately, it doesn't go deep enough.
Murray, a first-time filmmaker, made the ill-advised decision to "art up" his documentary with fancy visuals and audio tweaks, leaning in more of a cerebral direction than an emotional one. He keeps asking, literally, how much of our personalities comes from our memories, and what makes us us?
This may sound interesting, but it isn't, really. I mean, I'm all for an exploration of the meaning of identity, if handled deftly, but in Unknown White Male I wound up only wanting to know more about Bruce's emotional state. Cocky and cynical in his pre-amnesia days, the "new" Doug Bruce is quiet and reflective; like Prince Hal in Henry IV, he's been given the opportunity to reject the people from his reckless youth and enter the next stage of his life as a mature and serious man.
The film is most effective when we see the sadness on his old friends' faces, as they realize that the Doug Bruce they knew is essentially dead: the body is the same, the voice is the same, but the character is gone. At one point Murray likens Bruce's state to a computer being rebooted; a better metaphor would have been a complete wipe of its hard drive. All the "software" may be lost, but so is all the junk, all the fragmentation, all the slow performance.
The film suggests that, in some sense, Doug Bruce is a very lucky man, even if the loss of thirty-five years worth of memories is obviously tragic. (There's even the tiniest of hints that Bruce might have invented his amnesia as an excuse to start life anew; other people have insisted that Murray's film itself is a hoax, which I doubt.) But I greatly desired to see more of the personal aspects of his condition, and less of the philosophical ones. The "new" Bruce has a girlfriend – what was it like for him to fall in love for the "first" time? His girlfriend likely had previous relationships – how does this compare? Murray the intellectual avoids any talk of romance, sex, and other intimacies, and I for one regret that he does.