If you could somehow remove all of the powerful, heart-wrenching moments from Memento, The Usual Suspects, Saw and Reservoir Dogs, and replace them with a slew of flashbacks, a lazy script and an assortment of unnecessary twist endings, you'd wind up with Unknown -- a psychological thriller that loses its edge soon after exposing a flashy and intriguing premise.
On the surface, it's a fantastic set-up: Five guys wake up in a warehouse, bloody and beaten with no idea who they are or how they got there; the only thing that's certain is whoever placed them in this situation does not want them to leave anytime soon. Two of the men are tied up, one of which is suffering from a gun shot wound. While the first of the men, Jean Jacket (James Caviezel), regains consciousness, a phone is ringing somewhere off-screen. As he stumbles into a side office to pick up the receiver, for a brief second we expect the person on the other end to ask, "So James, which scary movie do you feel like ripping off?" Instead, it's a strange voice -- a voice that seems to know who its speaking to, even though Jean Jacket is clueless ... except for that loaded handgun sitting in front of him.
Like in Reservoir Dogs, the main characters don't have names. But not because they're hiding their identity on purpose -- fact is, they simply don't know who they are. Aside from Jean Jacket, Bound Man (Joe Pantoliano) wakes up tied to a pillar. Across from Bound Man, Broken Nose (Greg Kinnear) finds himself sprawled out on the floor with a bloodied face. Above him, Handcuffed Man (Jeremy Sisto) can barely keep his eyes open due to a gun shot wound that's not getting any better and the fact that he's uncomfortably hanging down, handcuffed to a metal bar. And finally, though we have no idea where he came from, Rancher Shirt (Barry Pepper) soon strolls down to join the clan.
As you can imagine, the first half-hour of the film finds all five men weary and unable to trust one another for fear the person standing next to him could be responsible for their being in this situation. Are the two men tied up for a reason? Perhaps they're the villains. Or, what if everyone's a hostage and the bad guys are on their way back to the warehouse? Of course, not knowing their own identities, each man instantly looks at himself as one of the good guys. Yet, it soon becomes apparent that that is not the case, and so the big question gets raised: Who is good and who is bad?
But do we care? With his debut feature as a writer, Matthew Waynee certainly attempts to create a compelling story, but gets lost somewhere trying to do too many things. It almost felt as if he came up with a fantastic premise, but then found himself trapped deciding how the thing would actually play out. Thus, he cooks up a familiar motive that involves two rich businessmen and a few seedy mobster-type guys who want some of that money. Okay, so the background is simple, the set up is complex -- is there a way for these two to meet without the end result feeling contrived and forced? Unfortunately, no. Waynee got nervous, and so he used the bulk of his script to climb his way out of the plot hole (pun intended) he created. Since he's a fairly young scribe and somewhat new to this, Waynee introduces one of the laziest elements of the craft -- flashbacks. And lots of them. The good thing about the way Waynee uses these flashbacks is that he at least gives them a pattern and a home ... the bathroom mirror. For some odd reason, each man conveniently begins to remember certain details of his life and this predicament (in chronological order, mind you) each time he peers at his reflection in the bathroom mirror.
But does it work? At first, yes. But then they become a crutch, and the script craves them like a drug. To fill up time (and dumb down the story), we often jump outside the warehouse where the cops and the wife of one of the captured businessmen (Bridget Moynahan) prepare the requested ransom demand and stake out the drop off location. Not only does this drag us out of the warehouse (where the interesting story is taking place), but it serves little purpose except to feed the audience a little run-and-gun action between law enforcement and the kidnappers. But we want something deeper than a car chase, we want character. And that's the biggest missing piece of this puzzle. Since the script desperately wants to figure itself out and move the story along, it fails to take us inside the minds of men who not only don't remember their lives, but are afraid they might be the opposite of good. There's so much emotion left untouched, and the cast certainly doesn't help. James Caviezel (who we're to assume is the main character) gives a stale, wooden and practically emotionless performance. Sisto could've acted out his lines in his sleep, Kinnear is too jumpy to connect with and Pantoliano, sadly, is stuck in the comic relief role. The only shining star here is Pepper, who delivers his dialogue with passion and hunger. Here's a guy who's so vulnerable, yet he remains strong and trusts only his instincts. Pepper was the only actor who understood how important character was to a story like this, and while the script didn't give him much room to work with, he dug deep and tried his best.
But is it worth it? Director Simon Brand ( in his directorial debut) creates a mood that feels very much like one of those Friday night HBO action/thrillers. The film is pretty on the outside, but once you peer in, there's nothing but a familiar emptiness. Though the warehouse should have released a claustrophobic aroma, thereby raising the tension and pushing us closer to the edge of our seat, it does not. It's too plastic and fake. Toward the end, it felt as if everyone involved knew something was off, and so we're confronted with multiple twist endings, the last of which happens so fast we're left scratching our heads for an explanation. An explanation we're too bored to try and figure out.