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Unknown (2011)

by on 2011/11/09

“These people might be good, but they are not God.”

* * * *

I won’t soon forget seeing The Mechanic in early 2011. It was one of those increasingly rare occasions when I venture from my home to see a feature. I’ve become a videophile as the years have worn on, so excursions to the theatre are now uncommon.

I enjoyed myself a great deal — certainly more than most critics did — but that’s not why it was memorable. Beforehand, two of the teaser trailers nearly short circuited my mind, as they were eerily similar to story ideas I’d explored with a friend of mine.

One trailer was for Bradley Cooper’s Limitless, in which a new narcotic changes a man’s perception, and possibly control, of reality. The other was for Liam Neeson’s Unknown, whose protagonist finds he’s unwelcome within his own life. As a connoisseur of “twist” concepts, I knew I would see them both . . . it was just a question of time.

Now I’ve watched the latter and, to anyone who’s seen Harrison Ford’s Frantic, it will seem somewhat familiar. Botanist Martin Harris (Neeson) and his wife Elizabeth (Mad Men’s January Jones) arrive in Berlin for a biotechnology conference. An immediate car accident causes Harris to lose four days, awakening in a hospital alone.

Where similar tales, like The Bourne Identity, traffic in the hero’s amnesia, here the rest of the world has forgotten what he already knows. Harris spends much of his time desperate to prove he’s correct. But as those dedicated to fighting good fights may sadly be aware: being right, even with evidence, is no guarantee of success.

Neeson is solid as usual, and most of the cast is just as strong. Aidan Quinn (Legends of the Fall) and Frank Langella (1979‘s Dracula) do well with limited roles. However, Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds) and Bruno Ganz (Downfall) very nearly steal the spotlight with every moment we see them onscreen.

In general it’s the kind of experience — though rarely bewildering — where you find possibilities everywhere. The most banal scrap of trivia could provide some information. Is Harris dead, dying, injured, deluded, or medicated? Is he imagining his predicament? Are he and the other players distinct, or various sides of a single person? Or is a conspiracy at play and, if so, who is in on the game? And what does it all have to do with the biotechnology work he’s doing?

I began to follow the progress of things like a watch, pen, book, or card. I puzzled over unfamiliar languages, numbers, symptoms, and even production techniques. What, I wondered, was the significance of insomnia in the story, of a plane emerging from clouds, of un-subtitled speech, of slow-rotation canting in close-ups?

In truth, it’s tough to review Unknown without dwelling on red herrings or giving away important secrets. It might be better to say you’d enjoy the plot if you’re a fan of The Twilight Zone.

I should note an important quality I found lacking in The Bourne Identity. This movie is blessed with moments of humanity and humour. Many would argue the films’ relative successes belies the value of such touches, but I refuse to count myself among that “many”.

I was happy to find the ending surprised me, while conversely being unsurprising; it made sense and was fair, given the clues at hand. So, having written six hundred odd words without getting very specific, I will say Unknown was an action-packed puzzle, delivering on a promising concept. With the benefit of hindsight, I look forward to seeing it again.

* * * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / PG13 (United States)

113 minutes

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