The way it plays out is elegantly simple: Five men find themselves in a warehouse unsure of who they are or how they got there. One of the men is tied to a chair. One is handcuffed to a railing and has been shot in the shoulder. One has a broken nose. The remaining two are bruised and bloodied. The warehouse is secured with bulletproof glass and bars. It's in a desert somewhere. There is no hope of escape.
As the men talk memories filter back slowly: The man in the jean jacket (Jim Caviezel, Passion of the Christ) recalls a violent kidnapping, the man with the broken nose (Greg Kinnear) recalls running, the man in the rancher shirt (Barry Pepper) is sure he can only trust one of them. They cannot decide if they should free the bound man (Joe Pantoliano) or help the handcuffed man (Jeremy Sisto) who is barely conscious. These desperate men slowly come to the realization that they are all involved in a kidnapping that went horribly awry. The question is: Who are the kidnappers and who are the kidnapped?
Matthew Waynee's taut and clever script is quite stunning in its setup. Few films outside of the ridiculous Saw series have so deliciously intriguing a start. Where Saw descended into butchery and sadism, Unknown plumbs the psychological depths of the situation. Who can you trust? How quickly can you remember who you really are? And even better, when you do remember, how do you decide if you still want to be that person?
First-timer Simon Brand (a vet of music vids) dabbles in a few technical whiz-bangs -- some fast cutting, a few fast forwards -- but avoids most of the cliché camera swoops and '70s style zooms that have proliferated in crime cinema since Tarantino dropped the Pulp Fiction bomb. Mostly he just lets his fine cast do their best with the dialogue. Caviezel is again excellent, perhaps a bit too stoic but believably confused. Barry Pepper is rugged and smart. Kinnear plays a nice slimeball and Pantoliano is as annoying as ever. The cast is rounded out by a few peripheral characters that appear outside the warehouse (Peter Stormare, that wacky Swede; Bridget Moynahan) but to discuss them would ruin the surprise.
While there are a few absurd and hoary plot devices -- the last minute reveal (now required in any thriller) and the magical bathroom mirror as revealer of truth for every character -- Unknown is fairly straightforward. In a very good way, in fact. Devoid of Tarantino-isms and the shop talk that's become a staple of crime flicks, Waynee's script is square-jawed and pragmatic. This film's brief (a rigid 86 minutes) but thrilling defibrillator shock to the moribund crime film genre.
The DVD includes a few deleted scenes.