On a snowy day in Berlin, Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) arrives at his hotel with his wife Liz (January Jones), only to leave her abruptly to retrieve his briefcase that was left behind at the airport. While en route, his taxi is run off a bridge and he goes into a four-day coma as a result of the accident.
When he regains consciousness, he doesn’t suffer amnesia. He has reverse amnesia: it is as if the world and everybody around him have forgotten him. Even his wife has another man on her arm (Aidan Quinn) and he has the same name — Dr. Martin Harris.
This is the enticing premise of Unknown, an interesting tale that starts off like a puzzle you have to piece back together. The viewer is meant to do this by paying attention to all of the little details, precious few of which are actually revealed but you just know that everything is a clue, especially that prized notebook he somehow didn’t lose in the river when the car crashed.
And that’s exactly why this is a brilliant movie. Give the audience nothing. Keep them guessing until the sinister man in the trench coat gives up all of his secrets.
Harris says, “Do you know what it feels like to go insane? It’s a war between being told who you are and knowing who you are.”
Is he insane or does this movie just drive the audience mad?
Harris comes to us under mysterious circumstances, a biotechnology scientist in town for a conference. Why doesn’t he tell his wife that he needs to rush back to the airport for the case? Why doesn’t his cellphone work when he’s in the cab? Why can he wake up from a coma and convince the doctors to discharge him on his own that same day? And why are there trained assassins on his tail, trying to silence him forever?
While Harris pieces his life back together, he enlists the aid of Gina (Diane Kruger), the cab driver who is in the country without a passport. Is she in on the gig?
I love movies like this because I’m so focused on watching the show with all of the questions swirling around in my head that I either neglect to observe or let slide some otherwise poor performances. I’m not even sure if either Quinn or Jones should still be considered performers. They both seemed vaguely distant, and not really present in their roles. They’re easily overlooked, however, when you take the small roles fleshed out wonderfully by seasoned veterans Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella.
Neeson, on the other hand, is always watchable and has a high likeability factor. Lately it seems like he has been trying to ramp up his macho image with other action roles, especially Taken. His characters don’t have very good luck with travel in Europe, do they?
Still, this is a smart and effective thriller that seems languid at times despite a lot of second act action. People are killed but there’s precious little bloodshed. It’s surprising since director Collet-Serra is really only known for being at the helm of a couple of second- or even third-rate horrors, including one that dubiously starred Paris Hilton.
Unknown reminded me of the 2005 Jodie Foster movie Flightplan where her character gets on a plane with her daughter, only to wake up from a nap and find she’s gone and no one on the plane remembers her. Is there a conspiracy at work? Is the lead actor going through some kind of memory lapse or identity problem? What other forces are at work? As usual in these cases, there’s a simple answer for everything but you have to be patient before you will get rewarded.
Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Now playing at: Grandin Theatre, Cineplex Odeon North Edmonton and Scotiabank Theatre