How much does he know, and why doesn't he know it?
You should never end up in a situation as awful as the one that faces Liam Neeson in the new thriller “Unknown” which opened this week at the Narrow Gauge. Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, a big-noise biologist who, with his crisp blond wife, arrives in Berlin for a biotechnology summit.
As they check into their fancy hotel, Harris realizes he has left his briefcase at the airport, and jumps into a cab to go retrieve it. But on the way a dreadful accident sends the cab off a bridge into the icy River Spree. Harris wakes in a hospital, having been in a coma for four days, checks himself out against the doctor's orders, and rushes back to his hotel.
Up to now the exposition has been slow to the point of snoozeworthy, in spite of attempts to startle us with ominous camera angles and plunges into frozen rivers, but at this juncture the movie takes a Hitchcockian lurch into the Twilight Zone, which sounds like a mixed metaphor, but if you see the movie you'll recognize what I'm saying. For when Harris gets to the cocktail reception at his hotel, his wife doesn't recognize him, and furthermore she's palling around with a totally different Dr. Martin Harris.
All the traditional responses – is he crazy? Is it the concussion? - run through our heads as they run through Harris's, as he ends up back in the hospital, but when an assassin arrives to take him out we realize there are outside agents at work.
Spanish-born American director Jaume Collet-Serra, who has only three other movies in his filmography, does a slickly professional job of keeping the thrills coming, aided by a slickly professional cast that includes Diane Kruger and Aidan Quinn. The great Bruno Ganz, who was alarming as Adolf Hitler in “Downfall” is superb as a seedy (is there any other kind?) private detective and former agent of the Stasi, the East German secret police. And Frank Langella once again puts his plummy voice to good use in tones of quiet menace.
Collet-Serra's – and cinematographer Flavio Labiano's – cool and emotionally distant camerawork leave the audience with a feeling of being a dispassionate observer, which is not usually how thrillers work, but in this case it helps to be able to step back from Harris's situation and analyze what's going on around him.
The fact that the film succeeds as well as it does is a tribute to the director's control of a script that frequently tests our charitable reaction to blatant implausibilities, but to warn you about them would reveal a number of plot points, including some pretty nifty ones, that you will have fun discovering for yourself. But then, isn't that what thrillers do, pile up implausibilities until our hero is overwhelmed, before presenting him with a possible way out? We have our own way out as we leave the theater, feeling devoutly thankful that such things couldn't possibly happen in real life, could they?