How would you behave if you woke up one day and didn't know who or what you are or were? That's the premise -- or one of them, anyway -- of Unknown, a compact little thriller, nicely cast, and efficiently directed by Simon Brand, that brings together five men in a precarious situation with no memory of their pasts.
As a film designed to contemplate our existential dilemma, Unknown might have let us take it more seriously if one of the men (Joe Pantoliano) hadn't been tied up; if one (Jeremy Sisto) hadn't been shot and left hanging by his arm from a rafter; and if the other three (Greg Kinnear, Barry Pepper, Jim Caviezel) hadn't suffered various other levels of physical abuse. That's where the thriller part comes in: The five are in an abandoned warehouse with drums of chemicals that cause temporary memory loss, and slowly, as they breathe more good air, they begin to get flashes of what happened to get them there.
How much will they reveal to one another? How much of what they reveal will be true, and how much withheld to serve their own interests? As Pepper's character tells Caviezel's, the reason they're all there won't matter once they're out. All that will matter is how they act from this moment forward.
That's interesting enough to sustain a movie with modest ambitions: If you don't know who you are, screenwriter Matthew Waynee suggests, then you have a chance to redefine yourself. Will the five men end up being true to character? The suspense comes in learning slowly just what that character is, and in waiting to find out whether it finally overtakes them.
Early on in Unknown, we go outside the warehouse to see the police preparing a bag of money for a gang that's kidnapped two men. There's an anxious wife (Bridget Moynahan), and a steely bad guy (the requisite Peter Stormare) on his way to the warehouse. We have every reason to believe that the kidnapped pair are among the five bewildered men. But are the other three their captors? Will the police get there in time to save the lives worth saving? And who will be redeemed?
Unknown is rather thin and contrived in the end, albeit entertaining. Call it Reservoir Dogs meets Memento meets a twist on Stockholm Syndrome, with some climactic surprises, of course. It takes brilliant filmmakers, not just good ones, to create an 86-minute movie with lots of plot and exposition that amounts to anything more than some of its parts. "Maybe you were a kidnapper," one of the men says to another, as their identities begin to unravel. "Maybe somewhere along the way you just forgot who you were before you became one." It's a well-crafted line, said without fanfare, in a well-crafted movie of no consequence.
Starts Fri., Jan. 24.