Genius Products // 2005 // 85 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // February 28th, 2007
Trust no one. Fear everyone.
Unknown promises to be a taut little thriller with a solid cast and a catchy premise. But when all the twists and turns have been laid out, will this amnesia tale be memorable?
In a dingy, surprisingly high-security warehouse, a man (Jim Caviezel, The Passion Of The Christ) wakes up, apparently having spent a period of time unconscious. He quickly discovers that he's not alone: four other men are passed out in various states of injury, one of whom is tied to a chair, another handcuffed, and a broken cell phone lies on the ground. Clearly something bad took place here, but the man has no idea what it was, or even who he is. And in another room, a phone keeps on ringing.
Once they're all awake, the five men determine that they are all part of a kidnapping and ransom plot, some as hostages and some as kidnappers -- but seeing how they're all afflicted with temporary amnesia, no one can tell who's who. Accusations fly as they struggle to tell the good guys from the bad, and find a way out of the warehouse before the rest of the kidnappers return.
Meanwhile, a group of detectives are tracking the kidnappers' ringleader (Peter Stormare, Fargo) in an effort to get the hostages back alive.
In the tradition of thrillers such as Suicide Kings and Saw, Unknown finds a first-time director (Simon Brand) attempting to tell a clever and original story within, for the most part, the confines of a single location, relying on style to keep things from turning into a stage production. Like those films, success is dependent on making the audience care enough about their predicament that we're interested in listening them try to talk their way out of it for an hour and a half. Unknown is pretty successful at this, keeping viewers on their toes and moving along at a solid clip.
The most apparent influence here is Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, with a few direct, if superficial, similarities: both feature a group of men waiting for someone to arrive, both have a guy tied to a chair, both have another guy bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound. There's one more strong connection, but I won't spoil it here.
Fortunately, Brand didn't attempt to copy Tarantino's style or dialogue, putting in ironic pop songs or having characters argue about how much one should tip. Instead, Unknown is all about plot -- we get to know very little about these men, and with the exception of one out of place 'remember when we were kids' soliloquy, all of the personal information we gleam is directly related to the events at hand. Character is defined by action rather than words, which is no small feat when the bulk of the movie is five guys in a warehouse, and is a credit to screenwriter Matthew Waynee, as is the believability of the source of the characters' amnesia.
I was immediately drawn in by the puzzle-like nature of the picture, and appreciated the ticking-clock plot device of establishing that the kidnappers will return by sundown. Having a deadline by which the group had better be clear on what's going on puts them all in a pressure-cooker, heightening the emotional investment and raising the stakes of every conversation. Also, the convoluted story is not presented in such a way as to lead the audience to try figuring things out, which wisely prevents any risk of us getting ahead of the characters -- each man is capable of putting two and two together pretty quickly as his memory starts to return, leaving the audience to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Brand attracted an impressive group of actors for his first movie, with Greg Kinnear (Little Miss Sunshine), Barry Pepper (Flags Of Our Fathers), Joe Pantoliano (The Matrix), and Jeremy Sisto (White Squall) joining Caviezel in the warehouse, while Bridget Moynahan (Lord Of War) plays the wife of one hostage. Each gets at least one big moment, but Kinnear effectively steals the spotlight in every scene he's in, exuding a spastic, unhinged energy that's endlessly entertaining without falling into comic relief territory. Pepper, too, is charismatic in one of the most level-headed and empathetic roles of the picture. All manage to sell the amnesia angle well, never hamming up the flashbacks as each starts to remember what happened to him.
Thanks to cinematographer Steve Yedlin (Brick) the warehouse in which most of the action takes place manages to be visually interesting throughout, and Brand's camera angles are often reminiscent of a less stoic David Fincher (SE7EN). The shadowy structure is representative of the bits of memory each man can't quite make out, but isn't overly noirish.
The DVD presentation is reasonable, with a clean widescreen transfer not victim to any obvious dirt or compression problems, and a surround audio track that comes to life with music or the occasional character yelling from off screen. About nine minutes of deleted and extended scenes are included, almost all from the police storyline, and none of which are missed in the final picture.
While it's somewhat necessary to get out of the warehouse to prevent things from getting too claustrophobic, the secondary storyline of the police tracking the kidnappers features virtually all of the movie's weak scenes. Poorly written dialogue and wooden delivery are the orders of the day, featuring one of the least believable detective squads I have ever seen, especially with baby-faced Clayne Crawford (The Great Raid) on the force. It's unfortunate that the otherwise talented Moynahan is stuck in this thankless section. I don't know if these scenes were rushed during filming or added late to the script, but I was always relieved to return to the warehouse.
Further, Brand doesn't always trust the inherent tension of the script, resorting to fast, annoying editing devices that destroy the slow burn. While I appreciated the original take on making flashbacks look different from present day, fewer cuts would have evened out both pacing and tone.
It's not a perfect film, but Unknown makes for an entertaining 85 minutes with a script that doesn't insult your intelligence and actors committed to keeping you guessing. It should make for a satisfying Saturday night rental, and is a good example for aspiring filmmakers on how to tell a dialogue-heavy story yet still follow the rule of "show, don't tell."
Not guilty...I think. What did I just watch?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Extended Scenes