Unknown White Male follows an extremely rare medical case of amnesia, yet the idea of the film ends up being more interesting than the film itself. Doug Bruce, a 35-year-old British man living in New York City, turns himself in to the Coney Island Police one summer’s day. He is a good-looking guy, wearing typical summer gear of t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops, and has absolutely no idea who he is. He speaks native English with a British accent, is not disheveled or unkempt, except for the bumps on his head, but is confused and more than a bit scared. This is where today’s Doug Bruce’s life begins. Piecing together who he WAS becomes the challenge.
The police are able to figure out the identity of this “unknown white male” via a phone number tucked in the a Spanish-language phrase book in his backpack. Turns out the number is of the mother of a woman he dated and broke up with a short time ago. He gets picked up by his ex and taken to his apartment, a rather nice artist’s loft that he doesn’t recognize, but is obviously his, judging from the personal effects laying around the house. Unknown White Male traces Bruce’s journey of discovering his past, and creating his new future.
Director Rupert Murray, and old friend of Bruce’s from his previous life, uses film footage that Bruce himself started conveniently recording as soon as he returned “home”. The doctors diagnose him with a rare sort of complete episodic memory amnesia, i.e. the remembering of events and people from your own life. The film’s website explains the other two types of memory:
Semantic memory is our general knowledge of the world, the kind of memory that we acquire through learning at school, such as facts, language and concepts. The third is procedural memory, which is memory for skills, for knowing how to do things. Learning to ride a bicycle, play a sport, etc. are all examples of procedural memory.
Bruce doesn’t have memory of his friends, his family, his job, or his life experiences. But he is able to do things like tie his shoes, dial a phone, and turn himself into the police, for that matter.
It is a little confusing that the first part of the film—Bruce’s initial rediscovering of the world—was taped by the man himself. It isn’t until halfway through that director Murray “meets” Bruce for the first time. This timeline of the film is a little wishy-washy. In the meantime, Bruce flies to Spain to meet his family for the first time, re-acquaints himself with friends, whom he now has no shared memories with, and have “new” experiences like eating chocolate mousse, watching fireworks, and going to the ocean for the first time.
Doug Bruce, in his previous life, was a bit of an arrogant successful urban professional. Now he is a blank slate, quite literally, even having rather subdued emotions and losing his previous sharp and sarcastic wit (as some friends lament). You can’t help but notice that there is something convenient about wiping your whole life clean and starting over, and it is not surprising that some viewers are finding Unknown White Male to be suspicious, claiming that the whole thing is a hoax. I’m not sure what I think, but I am not surprised that people are watching the film through suspicious eyes. When the doctors throw up their hands as to how Doug Bruce’s memory can be completely gone, I have to say that I need more proof. But the proof is not there, and we are told to accept his case for what it is.