Cast: Jim Caviezel, Greg Kinnear, Barry Pepper, Joe Pantoliano, Jeremy Sisto, Peter Stormare
Extras: Deleted Scenes, Extended Scenes
"I don't know… I can't remember…"
I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up a copy of "Unknown" — I had only seen a synopsis and a mediocre review on an episode of Ebert & Roper. What I wasn't expecting was to watch a movie where Jesus gets to go sacrificial-toe-to-sulfured-toe with Satan himself! In the blue corner, we have Jim Caviezel, forever burned into my head as the best of cinema's wide eyed, sympathetic Christs… and in the red corner, we have Peter Stormare, one of cinema's most depraved, scenery-chewing Devils in the decidedly hit or miss, religious shoot-em-up, "Constantine". I'm glad this little bit of random movie trivia kept me entertained because "Unknown" is a sloppy mess at its worst and, at its best, is only an average thriller that doesn't cash in on its own potential.
Five men wake up in a sealed warehouse with no memory of who they are or why they're locked inside. The literally named Broken Nose (Greg Kinnear), Rancher Shirt (Barry Pepper), Bound Man (Joe Pantoliano), Jean Jacket (Jesus), and Handcuffed Man (Jeremy Sisto) piece together a likely scenario where three of them are kidnappers and two are hostages. Over the course of the next hour, they work to find a way out of the building, figure out why they've lost their memory, and discover who they were before they were knocked unconscious. This film tries its hardest to be about identity, choice, and deception, but sadly loses itself in tired plot turns and heavy handed flashbacks.
"Unknown" could've been amazing. If the filmmakers had removed the flashbacks and forced us to decide who we thought each man was… who we should believe and trust… then this would've been a tense, mind boggling ride. Instead, we know from the first five minutes of the movie that these men are not trapped in some psychological experiment or anything other than the surface level setup with which we're presented. A clumsy and poorly acted subplot, involving one man's wife (Bridget Moynahan) and the police searching for his kidnappers, lets us know that everything is exactly how it seems. Even the method by which the men lose their memory is fully explained early on and seems a little too convenient for my taste. Unfortunately, the only thing we're left to figure out is which characters are good and which are bad. "Cube", a science fiction, indie wonder, was far more effective at exploring the same material that seems to cripple "Unknown". I got the impression that the writer of "Unknown" didn't explore his own work enough to add layers to give it dimension. Instead, the filmmakers hope that good acting from our five amnesiacs will be suitable enough to cover up the shortcomings of a weak and underdeveloped script.
When we're inside of the warehouse, "Unknown" holds its own and delivers fine performances all around. Caviezel is shaken, world weary, and grasping at straws as the man who wakes up first and gains the upper hand. Pepper turns in more wonderful supporting work as a desperate and impulsive hothead who confused as to where he should direct his loyalty. Kinnear works hard to branch out into darker territory and becomes a deshelved, frightened man pushed to his limits. Sisto and Pantoliano also have their moments, but both characters are tied up in one way or another so they only serve to enhance the story as it follows the three men who can wander freely about the warehouse.
Outside of the rat trap is an entirely different, straight-to-cable, up-all-night mud pit that kills the movie every time it bubbles up on screen. Moynahan is here to weep and raise an eyebrow before the credits roll, the police force is unintelligently one-note (all played by vaguely familiar actors) and bungle every situation thrown their way, the two officers (Chris Mulkey and Clayne Crawford) that follow the ransom money wouldn't be convincing as two rednecks on a road trip, and the criminals and their mastermind (Stormare) are so comically clichéd that I even found myself shaking my head at the Devil himself.
Take away all of those problems and even fine performances in a mildly interesting, warehouse plotline can't atone for the misery that is the twist on a twist… on a twist… on a twist… that is the ending. There are so many unnecessary turns at the end of the film that I found myself apathetic to everything flashing across my television. "Unknown" desperately wants to be "The Usual Suspects" and "Memento" (it says so on the box)… but lacks their resonance and impact. The film we're given isn't a clever tapestry with characters that could be anything… it isn't a mind trip that we emerge from only to rewind and play again… it's a film that thinks it's much smarter than it is. We're left shaking our heads in disbelief at a good idea that was reduced to a plodding, unoriginal disappointment. It's not a total waste of time, but it only makes for an average rental when Blockbuster has little else to offer.
The quality of the video was quite a surprise, especially since I'm used to reviewing high definition releases. As you can expect with any indie flick, there's a light dusting of grain and the color palette is drained of any unneeded warmth. However, the color saturation is better than expected, the black levels are deep, and the shadow detail is sharp. There's barely a hint of artifacting, even for such a dark picture, and noise, dirt, scratches, and print discrepancies were nonexistent. You may notice a slight, green tint to skin tones, but it's just due to a stylistic decisions and doesn't detract from a nice, clean transfer. The cinematography reminded me of "The Machinist" in its look and visual tone and added to the feeling of desperation and confusion throughout the film. The flashbacks were the only distraction, filmed in prismatic, trailed hues that bring nothing to the table that would elevate the visual experience.
The audio was also an unexpected highlight of "Unknown" and created a menacing soundscape across my home theater. Your subwoofer will be hopping across your floor and the ambience of the warehouse sounds are fantastic. I do wish that echoes throughout the building were presented a bit more accurately, but it would've probably grown tiresome with a movie that is so driven by dialogue. Voices were clear when shouting or whispering and the soundfield surrounded me perfectly, giving me a clear sense of where things were happening. The only downside here is the flat, pingy sound effects and voices that will begin to seep out of your speakers anytime the movie leaves the warehouse. The office scenes, crowded with police officers, are clearly shot on a set and no major effort was made to disguise it in the sound design.
Supplemental features are practically absent and the only thing on tap are nine deleted and extended scenes. Unfortunately, seven of these scenes are extensions and only add a beat here and a second there to what you already saw. The other two scenes follow a pointless, three minute subplot involving a local police officer that arrives at the warehouse before the main detectives. While I didn't like the movie very much, I was expecting to see a commentary track from the director since twist-and-turn flicks are rarely found without one. I would've liked to hear his justifications for a lot of the strange, amateur decisions in the film, especially the scenes that seem tacked on to 'help the audience keep up'.
At the end of the day, I didn't find "Unknown" to be a complete waste of time. It has some solid, well rounded performances from five, great actors and it has fun playing with amnesia. However, it also takes a dive every time it leaves the warehouse, it never recovers from providing too much information too early in the film, and it throws in too many lackluster, 'gotcha' endings to be something worth recommending.