Review: Unknown (2011)
Jaume Collet-Serra's Unknown is a fast-paced, fun, tense Möbius strip of a movie. It's great to watch, fun to think about, talk about and see again. I saw it once again already. It changes with the light. Liam Neeson, January Jones, Diane Kruger, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella and Aidan Quinn are larger-than-life actors who live up to their legendary reputations here, with a tight script by Oliver Butcher & Stephen Cornwell, from the novel Out of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert (which I have not read), and really smart direction. Collet-Serra previously directed Orphan, which had a secret twist I didn't love. Unknown's is a cut above.
The film opens with a view of the sunrise above the clouds from an airplane over the Atlantic. We see a loving American couple, Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson), a botanist, and his wife, Liz (Jones), arrive in Berlin where Harris will attend a biotechnology summit.
Immediately there's trouble. Martin forgets his briefcase (maybe?) at the airport, and decides to return for it at once, without consulting Liz, who is already in the lobby checking in at their hotel, the Hotel Adlon, when he discovers the missing luggage and hails a cab for the quickest resolution to the problem.
The cab gets into an accident short of the airport, however, plunging into the water, where the cab driver, Gina (Diane Kruger, Inglourious Basterds), performs an amazing water rescue. But it kind of spoils the summit for Martin, who wakes up from a coma in the hospital, groggy and weak four days in. Nobody has been looking for him. All he remembers is that he is Martin Harris, and Liz is his wife.
The amnesia Harris experiences feels real and disorienting to the audience. We're learning about him along with him. The identification with Harris's point of view is so total that with every shot and line following its introduction, the audience knows exactly how he feels, and makes automatic assumptions the script takes advantage of to work genuine plot magic. We look here. We don't look there while we're looking here. What could we be missing? Quite a lot, actually, I thought, when I got a chance to think about it. When is a briefcase not a MacGuffin?
Not much is wasted here. What's interesting about amnesia? It's a sloughing of identity, a chance for a person to be someone else entirely, without preconceptions. The film plays this straight. I do not believe it cheats at all. What's interesting about the progress of amnesia? The remembering. This is handled expertly as well, beat by beat, so that even if it gets a little cheesy, it's fair and credible. Finally, what's interesting about an accident? Who gets tripped up, and who can play it to their advantage. (In this case, it's advantage genetically modified global death Frankencorn, but you can't have everything, and luckily in this case, we can pretty much have our corn and eat it, too [when it's done eating us].)
Liam Neeson's credibility as an actor is essential to the film's success. Maybe there are other actors who could have pulled off this part, but I wouldn't change him out for anything. He's committed, believable and sympathetic. In Unknown, whatever action he's engaged in, he looks like he's swigging bitter medicine. Let me throw in an extra bravo for Liam Neeson in a great action pic.
The supporting cast are essential as well. Jones is lovely, wistful and yet all business as Liz. Kruger as cabbie/waitress Gina plays a mysterious Bosnian refugee saving up for new papers so she can escape her underground life in Berlin, when she crashes into Martin's life and dilemma. Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella are pros who sink their teeth in. And Aidan Quinn is an able Martin Harris be-alike.
Unknown is the best movie of the year so far. Watching it again was kind of like watching The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects for the second time, with satisfying clues and secrets. It's like Finnegans Wake, it starts right over again when it's over. It comments sagely on the extreme egocentricity of terrorism. It's my favorite Liam Neeson starrer since Batman Begins. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did. If not, you could always blame the corn. But in all likelihood it will just growl and blame you right back, so keep a sharp eye out.
SPOILER ALERT! Click here for a spoiler-heavy addendum to this review, detailing my theory about what may really be going on in Unknown.
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