Making Your Unknown Known

One-sheet for UnknownUnknown (2011)
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Writers: Oliver Butcher, Stephen Cornwell, Didier Van Cauwelaert
Stars: Liam Neeson, January Jones, Diane Kruger, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz

Theme is probably the hardest thing to handle when it comes to making movies. Hit it too hard and you have an after-school special (“Yes, teacher, I’ve learned now that bullying is wrong!”). Hit it too lightly and you have a hot mess (Clerks). In a mindless movie, especially an action movie or thriller, you have one of two choices for theme: good must triumph and/or we’ve got to get out of here. When it’s handled well, theme is not about what happens but about why what happens matters.

Unknown isn’t the best thriller ever made, but it’s better than most that have come along in recent times, including Taken, its near-relation. Better because of the usual things, yes, including three car chases (one vertical). But mostly it’s better because of its theme. First, it’s shocking that it has one at all. Second, it’s not hit too hard. And third, it makes you think, in this case about the old nature-nurture question. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but the question is whether a person is born cold-hearted or becomes cold-hearted over time and under the influence of circumstances. Are some people born bad, or does badness blindside them?

By the way, did you know Berlin is blue? At least that’s how they’ve filmed it, either with camera filters or a little post-production magic. It occurs to me that one way you know what kind of thriller you’re watching is by the color of the filter: blue for international and/or political thrillers (Unknown, The American, The International, The Ghost Writer, etc.) and green for supernatural thrillers (The Matrix, Paranormal Activity, The Ring, etc.).

Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) has a problem, the least of which is the car accident that nearly takes his life. On awakening from a four-day coma, it turns out that no one—not even his wife, played by January Jones—acknowledges his identity. Is he the person he claims to be? And if not, who is he? And maybe more importantly, why is he?

A good thriller is a story within a story. There’s what we see, the story unfolding before us on the screen. And there’s the unseen story, the story behind the story, what we try to figure out as we watch, what will be revealed in time (and hopefully not by the villain explaining everything during a torture scene).

What you get when you cast Liam Neeson in movie is what you get when you cast Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Meryl Streep, or Helen Mirren—a solid, believable center. The look of pained confusion on Neeson’s face carries Unknown perhaps farther than it might have gone with another actor in the role. January Jones is beautiful but distant in a Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren kind of way. At first I thought this was a problem, that Jones didn’t have the chops for the role. But by the end, I thought it was the right acting choice. Movies—at least Hollywood movies—go for simple motivations. It’s hard to play ambiguity, but that just what Jones does, and for the most part, she pulls it off.

There’s a scene where our hero is trying to talk his way past a security guard so he can get into a reception where he sees his wife. He points her out: “The woman in the black dress.” The camera shows his wife from behind—Jones in a backless dress, a dress so backless you wonder why Neeson’s character doesn’t just say, “The woman with the b-b-back!”

Bruno Ganz brings so much gravitas to the role of an ex-Stasi agent that it’s disappointing not to see more of him, though he isn’t necessary for the plot to work. Most of the story’s moves are telegraphed ahead of time, but the way they’re worked out is compelling. One of the pleasures of this kind of movie is watching as important puzzle pieces are laid out, the unseen story slowly taking shape. But the moviemakers can’t resist speeding things up and making things obvious by adding a scene where the villain explains every aspect of his nefarious plan to the hero he’s about to kill.

What makes Unknown a cut above the run-of-the-mill thriller are the performances (especially Liam Neeson’s and Bruno Ganz’s), the action sequences (which are shot with just enough imagination to make them interesting), and the theme, which asks how you become what you become, and who are you when it counts?