3/1/11

SPOILER ALERT! Review Addendum: Unknown (2011)


This will be a frank, spoiler-heavy addendum to my review of Unknown, describing my theory of one way to view the film and its plot. Please do not continue if you want to save the surprises until you've seen the film for yourself, or don't blame me. All right, now that we have lost the audience, and now only my friends are reading, I would like to share my Unknown theory. It is based only on the movie, not Didier Van Caulewert's novel Out of My Head, which I did read after seeing the film several times, but which is so different in premise, underlying plot and characters that film spoilers are not even tangentially spoilers for the book. (I think the movie is better and deeper.) (This is your last chance to bail out before I go into shorthand and blow some of the movie's big surprises!)

There are five main characters in Unknown, Neeson's Martin Harris, who is an assassin with Section 15 undercover in Berlin for a big job with his partner, posing as his wife, another main character, Liz (the stunning January Jones). (I'll refer to Aidan Quinn's Martin Harris here as "Quinn's Harris" to avoid confusion.) There's an investigator and former East German military man and spy, Jürgen, played by Bruno Ganz, who is drawn in by Martin's amnesia and quickly realizes he's in over his head. There's Rodney Cole (Frank Langella), a Section 15 operative/liaison and member of Harris's team, sort of a "co-captain" on their jobs, but who turns against Harris once Harris's amnesia threatens to endanger the Berlin hit. And then there's Gina (Diane Kruger), the woman of mystery, the cabbie driving Harris who rescues him from a watery death after their car crash. I believe the film implies, or at least leaves open the possibility, that she's a spy, too, working to get next to the assassination plot, likely to gather information to foil it.

There is no direct narrative evidence for this belief--we don't see Gina report to anyone, though she has ample offscreen opportunities to do so which would fit in fine with what we do see--but the hints are many, and, I believe, become clearer upon repeated viewings. For instance, the first view we get of Gina is in the rearview mirror of her cab, giving Martin a look when he asks her to change routes to avoid traffic. This could be a hint that Gina is more significant in retrospect than she may appear at first, as well as pointing out that she's in the driver's seat, which, if one does accept my theory, is where she remains for the balance of the picture. Indeed, the whole film seems to be showing us everything else but whatever other machinations Gina may engage in, in a sort of a flashy way, to distract us from suspicion of Gina, who, despite being played by the beautiful Diane Kruger, dresses down and is deemphasized (somewhat suspiciously?). Some might unconsciously stereotype her character as being like Jason Bourne's girlfriend from those films, or similar characters from other similar thrillers, that is, rather incidental. I think this is intentionally done (or else unintentionally quite smart).

I believe the missing briefcase for which Martin is returning to the airport is a rare false MacGuffin, or maybe a double MacGuffin, a device which, instead of becoming the object of everyone's attention in the film, or for which they are searching, instead is shown as an obvious MacGuffin-like clue in order to fool the audience into thinking it's significant, when in reality it's not much more than Harris's briefcase accidentally left behind, whose recovery is incidental and largely unnecessary to everyone in the story. It's a diversion within a diversion.

I believe the car accident acts in sort of the same way. It's showy, but, clearly, within the narrative, a real accident, not part of any specific plot to ditch Neeson's Harris in favor of Quinn's Harris (as Jürgen memorably explicates), his back-up. Quinn's Harris just does his job as back-up when Neeson's Harris disappears. The car accident provides more clues for my theory. Why does Gina pick up Harris? According to her statements, she's a cabbie, simple, but in my view, her organization, whatever it is, may be on to Harris specifically, or some chatter about a plot surrounding the Hotel Adlon and the summit, so she may very well have been planted to watch the Harrises' arrival specifically. She may, in fact, have been dispatched to try to pick one of them up in her cab in order to briskly drive them to an intelligence-service rendezvous for debriefing/interrogation. How does she accomplish the rescue of Harris if she's had no military or intelligence-service training? It looks more than impressive, perhaps nearly impossible for an average person to complete. Why does she run away after depositing him on the quay for the paramedics? Again, we could assume her character tells the truth right on the surface, and is an illegal Bosnian refugee who could get in trouble for working without papers, driving a cab, etc., if she stayed to speak with the authorities. On the other hand, it's exactly what an undercover agent would do, avoid the authorities, report developments and get new instructions.

After all, this is a spy movie. Why would we trust anyone? Taxi stands are notorious in the movies as intelligence fronts. And Gina does whatever is necessary to build trust, to stay next to Martin, sometimes perhaps with reverse psychology, arguing that he shouldn't do something, playing off of his egomaniacal hard-charging globe-trotting assassin personality, which lasts through his amnesia (big-time). Is she really hiding from Martin by not being reachable from the taxi company, or has she planted her friend Biko (Clint Dyer) there to watch out for Martin and send him her way? A big part of the film is cover stories. Just about everybody has one. That's how the two Martin Harrises can repeat dialogue together: they've read it off of the same sheet of paper, which one of them has clearly had typed up into a memorandum for further memorization by both. Part of this is even later found onscreen in Cole's appropriated briefcase, out of which Gina plucks an important clue in five seconds. Even if you don't think my theory holds water and Gina is not a spy, she has her own cover story living underground in Berlin trying to earn money for an even better cover story, forged papers. But why should anything Gina says be taken as anything but a cover story, then? The film never shuts off this possibility, just distracts from it with Martin's obsessive "memories" of the glamorous Liz, chases, fights, Cold War intrigue and Martin's relentless press forward to recover his identity. But I think most of this is bushwah, noise, however clever and stylishly portrayed. I think Gina is playing Martin to the hilt, even taking into account his amnesia, to learn more than she may already know about the plot, or to use his fortuitous brain injury as a blunt instrument to force it to reveal itself further, or both.

One reason I'm writing this is because many reviews I've read of the film seem disappointed with the film's twist, which they seem to locate around the time Frank Langella's Cole reveals plot details, and Martin's true identity as a contract killer, straight out, to Martin in an abandoned parking garage. This made me wonder, did they notice that there are three cold-blooded killers in the garage, and Gina takes out the two most dangerous ones, snuffs them like cheap candles without blinking, then quickly shifts gears and leads Martin to interrupt the assassination plot? I think it gets clearer and clearer that she's not just a well-meaning spitfire caught up in intrigue, but a precision guided missile complete with the combat and other operational skills of a dangerous covert field agent.

Then there is the classic All the President's Men/Watergate dictum of investigation: "Follow the money." At the last minute, as the plot to kill Prince Shada is collapsing, perhaps with Gina's guidance, Martin himself intuits that the huge money involved on both sides of the GMO-corn announcement Professor Bressler is about to make at the summit could mean that Bressler himself, and his monetarily valuable research, are the real target, and not Prince Shada, as might be assumed. Well then, who is working for the other side of this huge-profit equation? Again, my answer is Gina. Later, near the very end, we hear on the news that agribusiness company shares have dropped fourteen percent at Bressler's announcement. Anybody with prior knowledge of that development could immediately stand to make a fortune just shorting those stocks, providing another possible employer for the mysterious Gina in addition to, perhaps, governments, or Prince Shada's retinue.

In the final scene, Gina and Neeson's Harris ride off on a train with new papers with new fake names, inevitably toward a scene exactly like Martin and Liz Harris's arrival at the Berlin airport as undercover contract killers. That is, unless she convinces him to leave the train with her at the next stop, and puts a bullet in his head in the back room of a seedy bar, or turns him over to the proper authorities for his delayed interrogation, or they start their own killin' bidness, or like that. So my theory is basically that Diane Kruger has had parts in two big Hollywood movies (this one and Inglourious Basterds) in which she played two of the greatest undercover German spies in film history. In this one, she's such a great undercover spy that this identity remains, even to many reviewers and audience members, almost completely unconsidered, unsuspected--Unknown. And that's the real twist, or might be, or ought to be.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

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