James Caviezel as “Jean Jacket”
Jeremy Sisto as “Handcuffed Man”
Joe Pantoliano as “”Bound Man”
Greg Kinnear as “Broken Nose”
Barry Pepper as “Rancher Shirt”
Peter Stormare as “Snakeskin Boots”
Bridget Moynahan as Eliza Coles
Clayne Crawford as Detective Anderson
Mark Boone Junior
Directed by Simon Brand
“Unknown” is a clever twist-filled thriller, driven by a sharp script and a great ensemble cast. Not since “Memento” or “The Usual Suspects” has a movie thrown viewers for as many loops trying to guess the outcome.
A phone rings and a man (James Caviezel) wakes up inside a locked warehouse in the middle of the desert with four other men, all passed-out. One is tied to a chair, another hanging handcuffed from a railing, another is lying face down on the floor and the other is elsewhere. As they wake up, none of the men remember anything, not who they are or how they came to be there, but as they start putting the pieces together, they realize that they’re part of a kidnapping plot without realizing who kidnapped whom.
If a low-budget movie by a first-time writer and director doesn’t sound too promising, than just think a few years back to the debut of “Saw” to remember how a simple premise developed into a complex horror-thriller took the world by storm. “Unknown” may have never happened without the success of “Saw,” and its opening may seem vaguely familiar to fans of that series. With all due respect to Leigh Whannell, the strengths of this debut lie in the talent of the five actors and Matthew Waynee’s sharp script, which keeps it compelling.
“Unknown” is the type of movie where you don’t want to know too much going in and want to give even less away. All you need to know is that it’s a dialogue-driven puzzle that offers many satisfying twists for anyone willing to stick with it. The general premise is that the five guys locked in the warehouse have lost their memories due to a gas leak caused in a skirmish. None of them knows their own identity or anyone else’s, how they got there or how to get out of the locked warehouse. (Anyone who might have known it has also forgotten the code to the electronic lock.) They eventually figure out that they’re part of an elaborate kidnapping scheme without being clear which of the two are the victims.
Their conversations alternate between trying to figure ways out of the locked warehouse before the other kidnappers return and remembering their true identities. When any of them look into a reflective surface, they remember a little more of what happened, but since no one knows which side they’re on, it’s all about negotiating and even making up false memories to try to get the upper hand in what could end up being a deadly situation. When a single gun is found that could give one of them an advantage, the talking turns to yelling and scuffles as confusion and tension mounts, and it’s really what keeps things from ever getting dull.
As the five men try to figure things out, police detectives follow the two kidnappers who went to pick up the ransom money, but they’re having difficulties tracking them, as other police question the wife of one of the kidnap victims (played by Bridget Moynahan). We keep cutting back to this part of the story, but it’s pretty mundane compared to what is going on back in the warehouse, as the cast delivers Waynee’s Mamet-like script as if it were a theatrical production.
Of the five men, only Greg Kinnear, sporting a broken nose, diverges from some of his normal roles. Rather than being charming or being a sadsack loser, he’s someone able to play as dirty as the other guys. Barry Pepper, Jim Caviezel and Jeremy Sisto are equally convincing–the latter really having the least to do as the “hanging man”while Joe Pantoliano adds just the right dose of humor into a character, who isn’t too far removed from the one he played in Christopher Nolan’s “Memento,” another obvious point of reference.
The biggest problem lies in the production itself, which is greatly hurt by its low budget. Granted, most of the movie takes place inside an abandoned warehouse, but the production values are non-existent, and the amateurish camerawork and editing do little to add to the intensity level of those strong performances. Likewise, the music, which should have added even more intensity, is canned and generic. In the hands of a more experienced director who could add some style to the visuals, the movie could have surpassed what might seem to some like derivative origins.
It all leads to a Tarantino-esque stand-off between the returning kidnappers and the trapped men, who have to decide whether to go with their newly formed allegiances or return to their original roles before losing their memory. Everything is tied together with only a few minor gaffs slipping into the logic, but it does make you wonder what could have been given a bit more money and time to really make the movie as visually exciting as its premise.
The Bottom Line:
Obviously, anyone that likes cleverly-designed mysteries and thrillers”The Usual Suspects” and David Fincher’s “The Game” come to mindmight appreciate this intriguing premise and the great cast that keep it lively, though the low-end production values might detract some from truly loving it. The premise and writing are promising enough that it’ll be worth seeing what Matthew Waynee does next.
Unknown opens today in New York, Los Angeles and Denver, Colorado.