Unknown, which tries desperately to fit into that canon of intelligent and thought-provoking films, fails on so many levels that the entire structure of the movie collapses under the weight of its own absurdity.
Every filmmaker in the mystery/thriller genre wants to have a great twist ending that will blow the audience away and get people talking about the film. Many movies are successful, and when that “ah ha” moment comes it is one of the greatest joys for movie lovers. We’ve been duped; now, however, we know the secret that others who haven’t seen the movie don’t know, which makes viewing it with them just as enjoyable as watching the movie for the first time. Films like The Usual Suspects, Memento and Fight Club have those moments and every serious film fan can remember the first time they watched and were outsmarted by those filmmakers.
Unknown, which tries desperately to fit into that canon of intelligent and thought-provoking films, fails on so many levels that the entire structure of the movie collapses under the weight of its own absurdity. There is no single “twist” per se in the film. Rather, there is a reversal of reality and what we as the audience understand to be true. In Fight Club, when we realize Edward Norton and Brad Pitt are the same character, we simultaneously applaud the moment while immediately playing the film back in our heads to see how it checks out. There is nothing wrong with a movie asking us to suspend disbelief, we do it every time we walk into the cinema, but whatever takes place must still work within the reality of that film.
The movie is sort of an inverse of The Bourne Identity where a man wakes up and has no idea who he is but there are plenty of nefarious characters who do and who want him dead. In Unknown, Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) wakes up from a four-day coma knowing exactly who he is, but no one else seems to, including his wife Elizabeth (January Jones). Harris and his wife are in Berlin for a biotechnology conference but they get separated and on his way back to the airport he is in a serious car accident that lands him in the hospital with no identification to validate his claim.
Alone in Berlin and with no one who believes him, Harris goes to find the driver of the taxi who can at least vouch for the accident and what led up to it. Gina (Diane Kruger), the driver, is an illegal immigrant from Bosnia who is not enthusiastic about talking to the police. Unbelievably, she decides to help him even though he has done nothing but cause her grief from the minute they met. The two attempt to find someone who will believe Harris and help to restore his identity. Very quickly, though, they realize that someone doesn’t want that to happen.
Unknown rivals last year’s The Tourist for most ludicrous screenplay in recent memory. These types of movies forget that surprises and twists only work if the seeds have been planted in advance, and that everything leading up to that point must stand up to scrutiny and repeat viewings. No one would say The Usual Suspects is any less entertaining after being watched multiple times, and never once does the script cheat the audience for the sake of impact.
The filmmakers of Unknown, director Jaume Collet-Serra and writers Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, forget that every piece of the plot must add up to the whole; otherwise the audience is being cheated. Here it feels more like just a rough draft of a screenplay that has yet to be read through for errors and leaps in logic. | Matthew F. Newlin