REVIEW: Unknown [2011]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 113 minutes | Release Date: February 18th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Jaume Collet-Serra
Writer(s): Oliver Butcher & Stephen Cornwell / Stephen Cornwell (novel Out of My Head)

“And that’s where I first saw Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man”

I have it on good authority from a friend that Jaume Collet-Serra’s Unknown, as well as Didier van Cauwelaert’s French-language novel it’s based on, is uncannily similar to Roman Polanski’s Frantic. Unfortunately, to my chagrin, I have no opinion on the accusation, having not seen the 1988 film, but I’d lie if I didn’t admit my view of the new release is a bit tainted now. The premise of both are definitely eerily similar and my friend knows what he’s talking about, so I actually feel inadequate to state an opinion because I actually enjoyed Collet-Serra’s vision a lot. And I do mean vision. Aesthetically this work is gorgeous, through all the graffiti and dark streets of Berlin, whether the story was stolen or not. In all honesty, the plot itself is somewhat obvious if you’re a fan of amnesiac thrillers, especially with a very methodical pace to start in order to familiarize us with the characters and the identity theft device, to create opinions. So, besides a couple extra game-changing twists thrown in while you’re comfortable in your own hypotheses, the real strengths lie in the acting and direction.

Perhaps it’s too on the nose to use reflection as a major visual tool considering the film relies heavily on the unknown solution to the puzzle of who is Dr. Martin Harris, but you can’t deny its effectiveness. Right from the start, so many camera shots hold onto the figure of an actor only to seamlessly change focus, flip upside down, or pan sideways to either go into a reflection or show how the original was. The entire script deals with our brain’s interpretation of a given scenario; we use the facts we are given and attempt to put them through the prism of our mind for an answer. It is what the audience does while watching and what the characters do when confronted with two separate Harrises. One is coming and one is going, the illusion of identity becoming refracted and skewed into two, as both seemingly have no reason to lie while also knowing the exact same information. Both Liam Neeson and Aidan Quinn’s versions are so entrenched in the man’s history that when trying to convince someone he is the real Martin, they speak facts only they could know in unison. If Martin Harris’s life were a script, they both know the part.

The prologue is flawless in its convenience, setting into motion the series of events that risk locking a happily married scientist inside his own unraveling insanity. Martin and Elizabeth (January Jones) arrive in Germany unfettered and ready to enjoy the sights and attend the conference he is lecturing. It all seems normal as they get into a cab and head to their hotel, a briefcase accidentally left behind. In Martin’s need to reacquire it, he hails another cab that has the misfortune of crashing into a river, the driver, Gina (Diane Kruger), narrowly escaping with her passenger unconscious in her arms. The concussion has jumbled the man’s mind, but he knows his name, his wife, and what he’s doing in Berlin. It’s when he finds his way back to Liz that the mystery begins. So, through the glass panes, mirrors, and cloudy memories slowly forming inside Neeson’s damaged mind, we wade in the waters of truth and fiction, picking sides and concocting plausible answers. Unknown is a mystery thriller that begs us to become invested enough to do it—the characters are, so why shouldn’t we?

With a wife looking him in the eye, devoid of recollection, another man assuming his identity, and no true proof he is what he says he is, Neeson’s Martin finds himself wondering if he’s crazy after all. Why would anyone go through the trouble of replacing a scientist? The implausibility of that question haunts him, but also captivates the only people who believe him enough to help. Kruger’s Gina, an illegal Bosnian immigrant trying to earn money for papers, (How about the irony of casting a native German in a film that is set in Germany and making her Balkan?), is the only person not embroiled in the apparent ruse who knows him from before the crash, and Bruno Ganz’s ex-Stasi Ernst Jürgen is too intrigued by the story to pass up the opportunity to rekindle his investigative skills. The trio goes about collecting evidence, following the ‘imposters’, and slowly unraveling the truth. Political intrigue uncovered, old friends introduced with hidden secrets—soon the whole endeavor appears to be a complete fabrication. Everything you know, everything you discover, and everything you guess may be wrong.

The layers go deeper and deeper, each secret’s revelation making the plot more interesting and surprising—a trait adding to the enjoyment factor once it hits its stride halfway through. And it doesn’t feel forced either, the writers aren’t pulling the wool over your eyes with twists, the characters we’re privy to just don’t know the rules of the game. We are thrust into Martin’s quest as clueless as he, made to wait and decipher alongside. The performances help us cultivate opinions—Neeson’s sympathetic man who’s had everything taken away; Jones and Quinn appearing in love and sane, albeit with a tinge of deception beneath the surface; Kruger and Ganz the most unencumbered by deceit being outsiders looking in—that rely on what we know and look much different in hindsight. Each character is who we believe they are in correlation to people like Sebastian Koch’s keynote summit speaker or Rainer Bock’s head of hotel security passing judgment. Only when Frank Langella’s Rodney Cole enters the equation do we begin to see clearly and the action we thought we’d see manifests. So, rip-off or not, Unknown is smartly told and a fun ride. Frantic should be happy as a result then, this just making it look that much better.

[1] LIAM NEESON as Dr. Martin Harris in Dark Castle Entertainment’s thriller “UNKNOWN,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] DIANE KRUGER as Gina and LIAM NEESON as Dr. Martin Harris in Dark Castle Entertainment’s thriller “UNKNOWN,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[3] FRANK LANGELLA in Dark Castle Entertainment’s thriller “UNKNOWN,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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