Unknown is a nice, chilly thriller that’s so pleasantly confounding for so long that the biggest shock of the last act is to find how dull and routine it becomes. I enjoyed the film, but only to a point. The mystery is tantalizing, but the big twist left me disappointed. It’s a real shame, considering how much enjoyment I had been getting from the moody opening which finds a biologist and his wife landing in Berlin for a big scientific convention of some kind. The biologist is Martin Harris (Liam Neeson, in the same ballpark as his surprise hit Taken), an imposing figure with a soft-spoken demeanor. His wife (Mad Men's January Jones) is an alluring frosty presence. The happy couple threads through the airport and end up in a taxi that cuts through the snow and slush taking them to the fancy hotel and conference center. When they arrive, Neeson discovers that he has left his briefcase at the airport. Rushing back to retrieve his important files, his taxi driver swerves to avoid an accident and ends up plunging off of a bridge and into the ice-cold river below.
Four days later, Martin Harris wakes up in the hospital. His only problem is his newfound sense of disorientation. He learns his wife wasn’t searching for him. That’s odd. When he shows up at the hotel, she claims she doesn’t know him. That’s odder. What’s more, another man (Aidan Quinn) is claiming to be the real Martin Harris. The camera tilts and the focus pulls. What’s going on here? The sense of confusion and impenetrable mystery kicked up by this development is intriguing.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who last directed the disturbingly effective 2009 horror film Orphan, keeps the atmosphere heavy and slick. The wintry Berlin wind kicks off-white snow down endless mazes of grey concrete and imposing architecture. There’s a chill in the air as Neeson makes his way through a crisis of identity. The existential dilemma is balanced nicely with the sub-Hitchcockian silliness of the plot. For quite some time, it’s a nice little B-movie with A-list talent.
As Neeson sets out to discover the truth behind his situation, the plot thickens. He searches for his cab driver (Diane Kruger) and, when he finds her, discovers that she doesn’t want to talk to him. Hit with a dead end there, he talks to a kind nurse who tells him about an acquaintance of hers, a former Stasi agent (Bruno Ganz) who likes to keep his mind agile by doing some light investigation on the side. Intrigued, he agrees to help.
After several enjoyable chases and surprising murders that force Neeson to team up with Kruger to find the truth behind the mayhem, the elderly agent makes a breakthrough. This leads to the greatest scene in the picture, a case of when very good scenes happen to mediocre movies. It involves Bruno Ganz’s investigator coming into contact with a shady gentleman played by Frank Langella. For this one brief scene, the two world-weary men converse easily and warily while revealing some Big Secrets about the upcoming plot twist. It’s an example of accomplished, dignified actors elevating their material.
But, unfortunately, the movie goes downhill from there. Once Martin Harris realizes the true nature of his reality and the full ramifications of what is about to happen, the film turns into a series of fairly standard action beats. While still technically accomplished pieces of action filmmaking, all the central tension of the film has gone missing. I could not care less about the late breaking MacGuffin. What hooked me into the film were the nice chilly thrills with a suitably rattled protagonist. It begins as a movie of icy blondes, mysterious strangers, and wise old men. It ends as a rote action thriller with a ticking time bomb of a threat. The questions the film sets up made me curious for answers and when they arrived I wish they hadn’t. It’s a shame that the long-awaited answers end up killing the tension. When a thriller about a man who doesn’t know who he is turns into thriller about a man who simply has to save the day, that’s kind of a letdown.