Unknown isn’t the worst movie director Jaume Collet-Serra has made; of the four on his c.v., that honor is shared by the repulsive House of Wax and the laughable Orphan. It is, however, a maddeningly stupid one, built on cheap shocks, idiotic plotting, and some of the worst acting by a female lead outside of the porn industry. There’s no accident that it was released to theaters in February, during the time of year when studios are still busy trumpeting last year’s award winners and contenders that they fill their winter slots with lowbrow action, unfunny comedies, and grating family fare. The film feels calculated to push every last button of annoyance in a thinking viewer, practically daring you to stand up and shout at the screen, or to beseech the projectionist to just put on something else. Based on the novel Out of My Head by Didier van Cauwelaert, the screenplay from Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell is fraught with dumb twists and thick characters, and the brief tension Collet-Serra brings to a few suspenseful scenes evaporates whenever we’re required to care about the people in those scenes; they exist only in the abstract, never as real people. Perhaps it’s fitting to a degree that a movie about memory loss never asks its audience to identify with the protagonist in any real way. After all, if he’s just a ghost, a cipher, why care about him? The answer, had the filmmakers bothered to think about it, is that only by caring about the mystery man will we want to see the mystery solved. And at no point in this by-the-numbers pseudo-thriller do we ever reach such a point. The experience is as flimsy as its hero’s foggy memories, though sadly, not nearly so quick to pass.
As with all disappointing films, the heartbreak comes not just from the execution but the missed opportunities. When Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), visit Berlin so he can speak at a biotechnology conference, he winds up in a car wreck that puts him in a coma for four days. He awakens with blanks in his memory and also finds that no one has come looking for him, and that Liz, when he gets back to her, doesn’t know who he is. There’s even another man (Aidan Quinn) who claims to be Martin Harris, a discovery that sends Martin Prime into understandable fits of pique. Our Martin has no ID or passport because he’d left it in his briefcase, which he forgot at the airport, and he was taking a cab back there to get it when the car accidentally ran off the road and into a river. He now has no way to prove that he is who he says he is. Being a man without a country isn’t a new idea — these early scenes of confusion borrow heavily from the terrible The Net with a few dashes of The Bourne Identity sprinkled in via the aesthetic and European setting — but it’s rare in film to complicate the problem by having a double show up to replace the displaced protagonist. The door is opened, for the briefest of moments, for the filmmakers to bring in ideas about doubt and identity, to ask what makes someone who they are. It would obviously be done within the context of a movie in which armed gunmen have car chases across one of the most populous cities in Europe without incurring the wrath of any police or civilians, but hey, at least it would be something.
Yet Martin remains unmoved by such questions, and in fact, he stays pretty simple throughout the film. He wants to figure out what’s happening, that’s for sure, but he’s pretty bad at actually assimilating the knowledge he gains to form a coherent idea of what’s going on. For instance, when he wakes from his coma, he realizes that among his possessions is a pocket-sized book full of Latin phrases and old images that he remembers was a gift from his father. The book (which survived the trip in the river surprisingly well) has a small chunk of code scrawled inside the back cover: four sets of three numbers each. Martin sees this and promptly ignores it, especially when he’s distracted by a TV report that makes him remember all about the conference he’s supposed to be attending. Now, someone in that situation would probably be keyed up and willing to jump at little things like news stories and memory fragments, but they would probably also be devoted to figuring out just what the hell is going on with everyone around them, and if they woke to find a code (written, as Martin finds, by no less than their own spouse’s hand) on their only remaining piece of property, he or she would probably set about deciphering said code or at least worrying over it for more than a second or two. But the script makes Martin resolutely dumb, willing to chug along aimlessly and bounce off the walls until the answers finally fall into his lap. He has a purpose, but he lacks common sense. That’s the film as a whole: possessed of superficial virtues that look the part of the thriller, but completely unable or unwilling to make them work.
Martin’s pinball journey eventually leads him to Gina (Diane Kruger), the cab driver who ran him into the river but who also pulled him out of the car and saved his life. He uses her to help try and put his life back together, which means trying to reach out to colleagues in Berlin and also securing the help of an investigator who used to be in the Stasi. (The fact that the investigator is played by Bruno Ganz, who starred as Adolf Hitler in Downfall and was immortalized in countless meme videos, is just one of those little grace notes that makes life worth living.) It’s only Neeson’s sheer magnetism that makes much of the film watchable; even in the little moments, he’s constantly working, always working through his emotions with facial tics or body language. He’s a charming and engaging actor, and though the material never once challenges any part of his brain, he still brings his game. The consistency of his professionalism is even more apparent whenever he shares the screen with human-resembling block of wood January Jones. No matter the scene’s requirements, Jones is incapable of demonstrating emotional range or depth. At first I assumed this was merely her character: a cold, withdrawn person given to little sentiment. But that’s wrong, and it gives her far too much credit. The screenplay has her express things like love (to her husband) and fear (again to him, about his safety) and anger, but Jones merely mouths the words and changes the speed of her speech. Her eyes never change, and her words drop like wet sand as soon as they leave her mouth. Neeson does his damnedest to convey the intensity and frustration of a man going mad, and opposite him is an actress who might as well be a piece of cardboard.
There are some major plot points in the third act that are needlessly convoluted, but I won’t go into them here. Not because I don’t want to spoil you, but because I’d honestly just rather put them behind me. Suffice it to say that they underscore just how desperately the filmmakers hope their smoke and mirrors convince viewers they’re seeing something of substance. By the third act, though, the film starts to come undone. For all the attempted twists the filmmakers try to insert, Martin’s path remains a surprisingly easy one. He remains somehow superhuman and bulletproof. Then again, this is a movie in which Martin bangs his head again late in the game and regains his memories, the screenwriters’ conception of neurology being on par with an episode of “The Facts of Life.” Apparently all he had to do to fill in the gaps in his memory was get knocked on the head again. Would that a similar blow could erase the memory of the film.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.