So, one day I’m playing around on IMDb — as I am wont to do — and I come across this movie called Unknown. Not the 2011 movie with Liam Neeson and January Jones, (I’d rather scrub toilets with someone’s dirty gym socks in my mouth than watch that), but a little movie in 2006 about these five guys who wake up in a locked warehouse with no memory of who they are or what the hell they’re doing there.
It’s definitely my kind of movie — especially with the attached cast — so I look it up on Netflix and suggest to Mek that we rent it.
Mek: “Wait . . . didn’t we already watch that, a long time ago?”
And I’m like, “. . . shit, I think maybe we did.”
I present Unknown . . . the movie about amnesia that I completely forgot.
Five guys wake up in a locked warehouse without their memories. Some are tied up, some are injured, and it’s up to all of them to solve the mystery of who they are and what happened to them. And they only have so long to figure it out and/or escape before some very ominous men are due to return.
1. Well, there’s a reason that I forgot this movie: it’s not particularly good. It’s not terrible — actually, it starts really well — but it loses steam about halfway through and never fully recovers. Which is sad because there’s all kinds of potential in this story. Honestly, I kind of want to rewrite it now to make it so much better. You really shouldn’t remake movies less than ten years after the original was filmed, I know, but hey, Spiderman did it. And, dammit, this could have been awesome!
Seriously, this kind of movie is kinda where I live. I like bottle episode stories, successful ones, anyway, and I especially like these stories if they’re also mysteries of some kind. (I want to call them Locked Room Mysteries, but technically, that’s something else. I can’t find an actual term for this, people trapped together in one location with some kind of mystery on their hands. Bottle Episode Mystery Movie? BEMMs? That’s what I’m calling it for now, until I can think of something better.)
And while Solitary Amnesia stories aren’t usually my thing, Group Amnesia stories are much more interesting . . . not that I can think of too many of them, outside of specific TV episodes. Anyway, I like group dynamics. I like people being thrown into a strange situation and having to work together to get out of it, especially if the strange situation comes hand in hand with violent consequences if they can’t do it properly. I’m sure I’ve written something like this before . . . it might have been in my review for Battle Royale.
Unfortunately, however, this Group Amnesia BEMM has some problems. For example . . .
2. . . . we reveal too much info about the main characters far too early in the film.
The central mystery in the movie is this: who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy? Unfortunately, we pretty much figure that out about halfway through the story, and once we do, the film almost immediately starts losing momentum. Admittedly, there are more twists and turns after this revelation, but most of those twists and turns are unnecessary and overcomplicated and take away from the beautiful simplicity of this plot. Why do people constantly overcomplicate their mysteries? Why? It makes me so sad.
3. Also — and somewhat related — I kind of want to cut anything from the story that doesn’t directly take place inside the warehouse. See, Unknown isn’t a true bottle episode movie, like Exam or Buried, where everything you see takes place in one location. It’s more like Devil, where half of the movie focuses on the characters inside the elevator and the other half focuses on the cops and security people watching the feed. In Devil, that mostly makes sense — yeah, I just managed to pay Devil a minor compliment. I’m shocked, too. But in Unknown, it doesn’t work quite as well.
The problem isn’t that the outside characters are terrible — I actually like a couple of the cops — but that they are almost completely incidental to the actual story. If I were to keep them for my imaginary remake, they’d need to do something that’s actually significant because, as is, they’re barely even effective for dramatic irony. I’d rather cut them entirely, though, and focus on the guys in the warehouse because that’s where the intrigue really is, anyway. If the movie had more time to actually flesh out these characters and their relationships and secrets, well, it’d probably be a much more suspenseful and tighter mystery.
4. And the characters in the warehouse do need to be fleshed out a bit because there are only five of them, and yet two are kind of left high and dry. I won’t say which ones until the Spoiler Section, but they don’t get nearly enough to do, and while that’s okay with a ten character mystery, with five . . . it’s kind of unacceptable.
5. On the other hand, this is a pretty good cast, and they do the best job they can with the material. Especially Barry Pepper, who probably has the shittiest dialogue overall to overcome. I mean, it’s actually not all shitty — some of it’s pretty good — but some of it is decidedly not subtle. You know, there are definitely a few Shut Up, Writers! moments here. Regardless, Pepper tries his damndest to work it, I think.
Congrats, Mr. Pepper. You have somewhat redeemed yourself for Battlefield Earth. SOMEWHAT.
6. As might be expected with a temporary amnesia story, there are flashbacks. Flashbacks are often overused in movies, but their presence in this story totally makes sense. However, in my imaginary remake, we’re going to seriously cut down on the amount of times someone has a flashback while desperately searching his reflection in the bathroom mirror.
Because, come on, guys. We only need one of these. Not like, you know, eight.
7. My imaginary remake will also have a different title because Unknown is far too generic and opens itself up way too easily for jokes. It’s a little like naming your kid Hashtag or Kal-El. Look, if you’re kid’s unpopular, they’re unpopular — giving them a semi-normal name won’t save them. Kids can be vicious little bastards, and they will find a way to hurt one another. But for God’s sake, you don’t have to make it that easy for them, do you? And think about it — do you really want to name them after a superhero? Aren’t you basically just setting them up for disappointment? Instead of “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” it will be, “Why can’t you be like the real Batman?”
Welcome to therapy, kids.
That’s about all I can give you without spoilers. For those who care not about spoilers, continue below . . .
The movie begins with Jean Jacket (Jim Caviezel) waking up on the floor in the warehouse, trying to figure out what the hell’s happened to him. Broken Nose (Greg Kinnear) is lying on the ground, face first in a small pool of his own blood. Bound Man (Joe Pantoliano) is tied to a chair, while Handcuffed Man (Jeremy Sisto) has been shot and is dangling from a railing. Rancher Shirt (Barry Pepper) is unconscious and, for the moment, out of sight on one of the walkways above.
(And if you’re thinking I’m giving them arbitrary descriptive names because I can’t be bothered to look up their actual character names — well, you’re right, that’s the sort of thing I would totally do. However, these are their actual names on IMDb, which I love.)
There’s a phone in the warehouse, and Jean Jacket answers it, trying to figure out what’s going on without giving away any information because he’s picked up, fairly quickly, to the idea that he’s not in a good spot here, and either he’s trapped with some very bad people or he is a very bad person, and either way, telling the guy on the phone about the amnesia is probably a bad call. The guy on the other end doesn’t recognize his voice offhand but also doesn’t seem freaked out by talking to him, so Jean Jacket can’t tell if they know each other or not. (Not entirely unreasonably, Jean Jacket doesn’t tell the other guys about the phone call when they wake up, but Handcuffed Man overhears him and rats him out. Have to watch out for those tricksy handcuffed guys.)
Meanwhile, in Stupidly Obvious Plot Twist Land, Eliza Coles (Bridget Moynahan) is dropping off ransom money in a locker.
We soon figure out that her husband and his accountant are two of the guys in the warehouse, and the other three are their kidnappers. Which is all well and good as a setup, but we keep going back to Eliza throughout the movie, who’s not really doing anything but weeping in a corner or nervously talking to a cop. Which, of course, immediately tells me that she’s a bad guy because, seriously, why waste time on her if she’s just the Faithful Wife? It’s not like she has an actual personality. She adds nothing to the story. Really, her whole character is a bad idea, either way you slice it: if she wasn’t a bad guy, I’d be annoyed the film wasted all this time on her, but as a twist, she’s completely and utterly predictable.
(As a side note: once again, I figure out a plot twist because I think like a writer, while Mekaela figures out the same twist just by using simple logic. Eliza Coles puts the ransom money in a bottom locker, where it falls through a hole that’s been cut into it, all the way to the basement . . . and yet, somehow, she didn’t notice. Yeah, the locker had a false bottom, but it doesn’t seem like someone anyone came up for it . . . it just fell through. Wouldn’t you notice if you set a bag of money down on a seemingly solid surface and it just suddenly disappeared? What, did she squeeze her eyes shut and drop it in or something?)
The film would probably be stronger if Eliza was written out entirely. It would change things about the end, but the end is screwed anyway. (Don’t worry: we’ll get there.) And while that would make this a No-Women-At-All film . . . sometimes, that’s preferable to the All-Men-Plus-One-Female film. Mind you, I wouldn’t object to women being inside the warehouse, but that has to be handled carefully. The guys find out about the kidnapping through a Handy Dandy Newspaper Article, and most newspaper articles do use pronouns . . . which would unfortunately eliminate suspects. It’s probably best to make this an all-male or all-female cast.
But back to the warehouse: all the guys wake up, although Handcuffed Man dips in and out of consciousness, since he’s still bleeding out from his shoulder wound. The guys try to figure out who they can trust, why they’re here, etc, etc, and it’s all a lot of fun to watch. Rancher Shirt persuades the others to keep Bound Man tied up because he figures the guys who are free and the guys who are tied up are enemies, which is an incorrect but completely valid hypothesis. He’s also the one who destroys the phone because he’s not sure he wants the police there, which is great because he ends up being one of the good guys. (In fact, he’s Eliza’s husband.)
Unfortunately, once we know he’s a good guy, Rancher Shirt turns into kind of a moron. I mean, not entirely, and Pepper does the best he can to sell it, but . . . like, there’s this idea in the movie about instinctual trust, right, which is kind of interesting, except that it’s not developed very well and ultimately has Rancher Shirt coming to stupid ass, horribly naive conclusions. Like Rancher Shirt feels this sort of trust for Jean Jacket and figures that maybe it’s because part of his brain remembers that Jean Jacket’s a good guy. That’s not horrible, as far as hunches go, but it’s a little different when you have a) extremely good reasons to doubt Jean Jacket’s intentions toward you and b) fucking amnesia. Barry Pepper is kind of the mouthpiece for all the writer’s ideas, and that can be hard to work with.
It can also be hard to play the likable asshole — the one you’re kind of rooting for, even though he’s a manipulative, uncooperative sonofabitch. Thankfully, Greg Kinnear — as Broken Nose — does an awesome job with it.
Broken Nose is an ill-tempered little thing, prone to angry outbursts about naughty activities one might do with one’s mother, which is actually kind of awesome because he’s also one of the good guys: he’s Rancher Shirt’s accountant. He’s especially kind of awesome because — even when he’s totally making shit up — he gets everything right. He blames Jean Jacket for breaking his nose before he fully remembers it, and as a matter of fact, Jean Jacket did break Broken Nose’s nose. Then — when he remembers that he was one of the men kidnapped — Broken Nose immediately goes to Rancher Shirt and tells him that they were kidnapped together, throwing out all kinds of bullshit about Rancher Shirt’s supposed children, just so they can overpower the others. But even though he was making it up, Rancher Shirt is that guy. I think it’s hilarious.
I can’t say exactly what I love so much about Kinnear here, but I really do. It’s not a super complex role or anything, but he throws himself into it entirely. I like Greg Kinnear a lot. I wish he was in more things that I actually had interest in.
Really, all of the actors are better than the material they have to work with. Jeremy Sisto and Joe Pantoliano are kind of criminally underused. Admittedly, Sisto’s handcuffed to a railing the whole movie, and Pantoliano is tied up for most of the story too, but there are still ways to work that — they can play mind games, try to negotiate, whatever. Power plays can be a lot of fun to watch, but for some reason in this movie, they seem to be almost entirely reserved for the people who can actually walk around. Sisto and Pantoliano have the least to do throughout the film, and by the end, they aren’t very relevant to the actual plot themselves. Mr. Orange in Reservoir Dogs doesn’t do a whole lot for most of the movie, but he ends up being hugely important to the story. Sisto and Pantoliano, not so much.
Okay, so where were we . . . Sisto (or Handcuffed Man) eventually goes into this long monologue about how he and Jean Jacket were childhood friends, and Jean Jacket saved them from drowning in this storm and whatnot back in the day. As monologues go, it’s delivered well, but it goes on for a little too long. Broken Nose, awesomely, has this great sarcastic reaction to it: “Hey, that’s really touching and all. Completely useless, though.” But Saint Rancher Shirt is all like, listen to what he’s saying! It’s a speech about working together!
Really, though, it’s just a last bid sympathy speech because Handcuffed Man dies a few seconds later.
A few things about this:
A. Handcuffed Man dies because he bleeds out from his shoulder wound. This is the rare shoulder wound that isn’t just shrugged off, which is kind of nice. Although it wouldn’t have hurt to have shown somebody trying to apply some pressure to that wound. And a bigger pool of blood on the ground below him wouldn’t have been amiss. Also, where the hell are the keys to this guy’s handcuffs? Handcuffed Man is never freed because they can’t find the keys to the cuffs, but they’re his own cuffs. Shouldn’t the key be somewhere in this warehouse? Like, maybe in his jeans pocket?
B. Ultimately, this monologue is kind of a wasted moment. The speech is a We Need to Come Together moment, but it should also be a Big Reveal moment, and finding out that Jean Jacket and Handcuffed Man were childhood friends shouldn’t be the Big Reveal. That doesn’t tell us anything about who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy because we already know that Rancher Shirt and Broken Nose are the good guys here. However, if we only knew that Broken Nose was a good guy . . . well, then finding out that Jean Jacket and Handcuffed Man already knew each other from childhood could lead us to realize that it’s unlikely that they had a accountant/client relationship, like the two victims. It’s certainly unlikely that only one of them was a kidnapper, which means that they both are. And so the search for good Mr. Coles comes that much closer to an end, between Rancher Shirt and Bound Man.
After Handcuffed Man dies, the others decide to work together and escape when the Bad Men come. Of course, when this happens, Bound Man remembers for sure that he’s a kidnapper, and he turns on the others. Unfortunately for him, he’s quickly killed for it.
Jean Jacket also considers turning on the group because maybe being a bad guy is just who he is, blah blah blah, but Saint Rancher Shirt — who has had that inexplicable bond with him — eventually talks him out of it. (The movie’s actually asking some interesting questions about identity here, the kind that really ought to be asked in an amnesia movie, but the writing just isn’t subtle enough to do them any justice.)
Jean Jacket supposedly shoots them, although we cut away so everyone knows that he’s really just shot into the air — seriously, why do we even do this anymore? It’s dumb. Then the bad guys come out to kill Jean Jacket because they’ve figured something out — Jean Jacket is, secretly, an undercover cop!
For fuck’s sake.
You know how I called this twist? Because it’s stupid. I was like, “Wow, wouldn’t it be lame if Jean Jacket — after angsting away about his previous identity as a criminal and true nature and all that jazz — wouldn’t it be so immensely lame if he were an undercover cop? I bet he is.” And sure enough, they did it: they made the most idiotic plot twist and . . . look, this shit is just unnecessary. Jean Jacket didn’t need to be secretly good all along. Why couldn’t it just be, hey, when I’m stripped of my baggage and memories and circumstances that led to me this place, I actually want to do the right thing — why can’t it just be that? That’s kind of a neat idea. You don’t see it a lot in movies. But oh no, he had to be an undercover cop — which really comes out of nowhere. The writers don’t bother to lay in any clues or foundations for it at all.
If he absolutely had to be an undercover cop, Jean Jacket should have realized it after he did something awful like, say, murder Broken Nose. You know, he should decide that he’s a bad guy and might as well own up to it, only to find out that he wasn’t a bad guy at all . . . but he is now. That’s better but still tricky . . . you have to write it just right to avoid being too muahahaha, Twilight Zone sucker punch . . . so it’s probably best if we just get rid of this BS undercover cop business altogether. Because seriously: you can’t introduce an undercover cop out of left field without being cheap. This is ridiculous . . . and it’s only going to get worse.
How does it get worse? Well, first, Broken Nose dies. Okay, that’s not seriously worse, but I like Kinnear, and they kill him by making him do the Move That Is Almost Guaranteed To Get You Dead. You know the one: it’s where you raise your weapon high over your head, so that whoever you’re fighting gets a good, clean shot at your exposed torso, and congratulations, now you’re toast. You see this all the time in movies, so much so that I ought to make it an actual list: it happens in The Patriot, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, countless others.
I wished better for you, Broken Nose. I wished better for you.
Anyway, the cops come rolling in and the bad guys are either killed or arrested, and it’s just our new BFF’s, Rancher Shirt and Jean Jacket, left standing. This is when Eliza Coles, comes into the picture, however. She and Jean Jacket stare at one another, and we flash back to . . .
Jean Jacket and Eliza meeting in a bar and starting an affair. Turns out, Jean Jacket isn’t so good after all — despite being an undercover cop, he orchestrated the whole thing, the plan, the robbery, etc. And . . . oh, aiya. This is just ridiculous. I hated that Jean Jacket was an undercover cop because it was such an unfounded twist that took away any semblance of character ambiguity, but this . . . this is just too much. It’s all, maybe Jean Jacket’s bad, but no wait, he seems good, no no, he’s definitely bad, but WAIT! He’s an undercover cop! Oh my god, he was good all along — no, no, he set the whole thing up! He’s evil! EEEEEVIL!
People, there is such a thing as too many twists in a mystery. Not enough twists and your story is boring, but too many and your story is ludicrous. Besides, Eliza Coles? She’s still a terrible character. God, I want to take apart this story so much. I want to strip it of all its extra fat and make it lean and yummy again.
The movie ends with Rancher Shirt cluelessly introducing his wife to Jean Jacket. Jean Jacket doesn’t turn her — or himself — in, but he does tell the cops where the money is, presumably because he feels guilty? Whatever. I’m done.
Best thing about this movie: Fusco and John from Person of Interest are together again! (Although, unfortunately, they share absolutely no scenes together. Boo, hiss.)
Awesome set-up, interesting ideas, good acting . . . but the story ultimately falls on its face with too-early revelations and last-minute, shitty twists.
Don’t conduct your nefarious criminal activities in warehouses that store poisonous, memory-wiping gas. I mean, does that really need to be said?