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Taut, tight ‘Unknown’ arrives on DVD

Sean Sweany | Sunday, February 18, 2007

Fear of the uncertain is one of the most alarming and terrifying feelings. Not knowing where one is, how one got there or – worst of all – who one is can instill a terror so profound that one resorts to desperate measures to find the answers to these simple questions.

This is the dilemma facing five men who awake to find themselves injured and locked inside a warehouse in the movie “Unknown.” Confused as to who they are and why they are injured, the men learn from a discarded newspaper they are all connected with a kidnapping plot – and that two were kidnapped while the other three were kidnappers.

A phone call alerts them that the ringleader of the kidnapping will return to the warehouse in several hours to “sort out” the situation. What follows is a race against time for the men to piece together their collective memories and escape the warehouse before the other kidnappers arrive.

The greatest strength of “Unknown” is its script. Penned by Notre Dame grad Matthew Waynee, the smart writing drops hints and creates mystery at just the right times. Cerebral explorations of good and evil take place at the same time as character development and even brief flashes of humor, demonstrating Waynee’s skill in his first screenplay.

The narrative is quick-paced and complex, using flashbacks to gradually reveal the truth to the audience slightly before the characters themselves realize it. One man (Jim Caviezel, “The Passion of the Christ”) seems most integral to the plot and quickly becomes the story’s protagonist.

Caviezel’s fellow actors include Greg Kinnear (“Little Miss Sunshine”), Barry Pepper (“Saving Private Ryan”), Joe Pantoliano (“Memento”) and Jeremy Sisto (“Six Feet Under”), all of whose story arcs weave in and out of each other as their characters gain and lose each other’s trust.

At its heart, “Unknown” is a psychological thriller about the interaction of fear and trust, and all five men convey this perfectly in their acting. Occasionally, the narrative eases the tension by leaving the warehouse to show us the head kidnapper (Peter Stormare, “Prison Break”) and the wife of one of the kidnapped men (Bridget Moynahan, “I, Robot”), two deep characters that add much to the film.

The excellent script and acting overcome what is mediocre directing and camera work, especially since the unchanging setting provided director Simon Brand a realm of creative possibilities. The simple and repetitive cinematography becomes evident towards the end of the film, which is also when the whole ship starts to sink.

In any film of this genre, like “Reservoir Dogs,” one expects plot twists, and they begin in earnest in the last 15 minutes of “Unknown.” As the plot twists begin to pile up like the dead bodies in the film, however, the plausibility becomes questionable.

Ultimately, the good traits of the first thrilling hour of the movie become negated by unrealistic events and connections viewers are asked to believe in the last few minutes. This is not to say that the movie is not worthwhile – the acting is superb, and the first five minutes alone should be enough to hook anyone. However, it is hard to imagine what “Unknown” could have been had its ending kept pace with the rest of the movie.