Unknown starts things off with an intriguing premise and ends with a preposterous but half-satisfying conclusion, which cleanly wraps up the events of the preceding film but also introduces a whole new set of questions that go unanswered.
It’s an efficient thriller, and it’s fun to see Liam Neeson in Taken tough guy mode, but we ultimately feel cheated when we realize 80% of the movie involves little more than jerking us around along with its protagonist.
That protagonist is Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) a man who wakes up in a Berlin hospital with some vague form of amnesia, and he’s not who he thinks he is, or maybe he is and others don’t want him to be.
Surely, someone knows what’s going on and can come along and explain the situation to him, and us, and that’s precisely what happens at the end. Till then, the filmmakers string us along, carefully obscuring the facts before arbitrarily revealing them. It’d be a lot more fun if we weren’t so aware of the craft.
Let me backtrack. As the film opens, Harris and his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) arrive in Berlin for a biotech conference. When they get to the hotel, Harris realizes he left his briefcase behind, and rushes back to the airport. Before he gets there, an accident sends his taxi plunging into the Spree River. The driver, Gina (Diane Kruger), pulls him out, but he’s suffered a nasty knock on the head and spends four days in a coma.
When he wakes up, Harris has little long-term memory beyond arriving in Berlin. His wife – she must be worried! But he’s in for a shock when he gets back to the hotel: his wife doesn’t seem to recognize him. In fact, she’s with a man claiming to be the “real” Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn). Without identification, or a reliable memory, Harris must prove his existence.
Unknown belongs to a very particular genre of thriller, which might have started with Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, where the protagonist has to think themselves out of an impossible situation while everyone is telling them they’re wrong.
The hook is in the premise: in Polanski’s Frantic, Harrison Ford’s character has to account for the disappearance of his wife in Paris, while authorities question the existence of the wife; in Breakdown, Kurt Russell faces a similar task; in Bunny Lake is Missing and more recently The Forgotten and Flightplan, a mother searches for her child while others tell her the child never existed.
Few of these films are great cinema, but they are compulsively watchable: like a good episode of The Twilight Zone, the premise captures our imagination and we need to know how things are resolved. Is the protagonist crazy? Is it all a dream? Government conspiracy? Alien abduction? Unfortunately, the revelation always seems to tarnish the mystery; once the puzzle has been solved, the film feels far less interesting.
And unlike an episode of The Twilight Zone, a two-hour film needs a little more than just a premise. Unknown doesn’t really have that; there’s the pretense of an actual film here, with Harris running around searching for clues, and exposition provided by Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella, but it’s ultimately much ado about nothing. Had Harris remembered something, or gotten someone to talk earlier, he’d have saved the film a lot of extraneous running time.