The engaging documentary Unknown White Male is a more romantic look at a person in a fugue state. In 2003, the handsome thirtysomething British ex-stockbroker Doug Bruce woke up on a subway in Coney Island with no memory of his past—but with his linguistic skills and sensitivity, if anything, heightened. The director, Rupert Murray, was a friend of the “old” Doug and here sets out to track the journey of the “new” one. Murray intercuts his footage of Bruce and Bruce’s siblings, friends, and dishy girlfriends with the ruminations of neurologists and even philosophers. In his role as the narrator, he poses the question directly: “How much of our identity is detached from our experiences?”
Unknown White Male doesn’t exactly wrestle with that question—more like trots it out for a walk around the park. Murray seems to be too protective of his friend to probe very deeply, so big issues like the trauma of Bruce’s mother’s death are handled gingerly, and the increasingly beatific subject never opens up to us. Murray doesn’t come out and say what many of us are thinking—justly or unjustly—in the new post–James Frey era: that this is all a little neat. Given that this retrograde memory loss has cleansed Doug Bruce’s perceptions and made him an altogether more open and emotional person, Unknown White Male suggests that amnesia could be the ultimate chicken soup for the soul.