Saturday, November 11, 2006

MovieWatch: "Unknown"

Director: Simon Brand
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 33
In a Nutshell: Even though it features so many actors you've heard of -- Greg Kinnear, Joe Pantoliano, Barry Pepper, Jeremy Sisto, Bridget Moynahan, Jim "Jesus" Caviezel, Peter Stormare -- you probably haven't heard much of anything about "Unknown," which ought to set off warning signs. Even after seeing the movie -- one of the filmmakers is a friend of a friend, otherwise I'd have no excuse -- I still don't know why so many good actors decided to waste a couple weeks on this one.

I guess that the basic premise is an appealing one: Five men wake up in an abandoned, but tightly sealed, factory way out in the desert. Thanks to a weakly justified plot contrivance, they all have short-term memory loss. But one of them is tied to a chair, another handcuffed to a railing, another's nose is broken. Thanks to another weakly justified plot contrivance (a newspaper in the bathroom), they know there was a kidnapping and deduce that some of them must be the villains and others the victims. But who is who? Moral ambiguity is always a treat for actors to play, but Matthew Waynee's script only begins to touch on the most dynamic part of that premise -- the question of how identity is constructed, whether good and evil are products of context or upbringing or even more psychological forces. Mostly, the characters yell at each other for 85 minutes and their absence of memory becomes an absence of character depth so pervasive that I never cared about anybody for a second.

Because there are no characters and no plot beyond the basic story mechanics, there's no way to logically deduce the various twists. Instead, you have to look at the bare bones, assume that the genre requires twists and just guess based on conventions. The sad thing is how often you'll be right. "Unknown" is basically devoid of intrigue or surprise, replacing those storytelling essentials with vague writing and murky visuals.

Brand thinks that choppy and disorienting editing is the path to making the material feel like a movie, rather than a third-rate chamber play. He definitely achieves disorientation, but only some of it seems intentional. And is there a more overused shot in filmmaking than the distraught character standing in a bathroom bowing to splash his face and then rising to stare into a mirror? They keep doing it over and over again in "Unknown," because the only way the characters can have flashbacks (at least in the beginning) is to examine themselves.

I've been assured that the script was written long before "Saw" or "Memento" was written, but that doesn't keep "Unknown" from feeling derivative of those two successful movies as well as a dozen other genre pieces. The cast tries hard (Moynahan is the weak link, but her part is tertiary), but even they shouldn't be seen as reason to check this one out when it makes its swift trip to DVD.

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