Indie thriller “Unknown” boasts a strong premise: Five men wake up locked in a deserted warehouse unable to remember what happened or which of them are the good guys and which are the baddies. With seasoned character actors like Barry Pepper, Joe PantoFilmliano and Greg Kinnear in a “Reservoir Dogs”-type paranoid stew, the sparks should fly. But tyro video helmer Simon Brand doesn’t give his actors sufficient breathing room, ruthlessly chopping their scenes into monotonous hash. Slated by IFC First Take for simultaneous Nov. 3 theatrical and cable release, high concept and name cast are most likely to draw small-screen auds.
Perhaps the first multiple amnesia plot, Matthew Waynee’s debut script throws in one too many twists. It does, however, provide a clever framework for free-form ensemble acting as each man wakes up a total blank, the players’ collective short-term memory loss occasioned by an accidental gas leak.
One man is tied to a chair, another has been shot and is handcuffed to a pipe, while the other three lie unfettered but somewhat the worse for wear. Each slowly comes to, beginning with Jim Caviezel, who, casing the joint before the others, becomes the hero by default (not to mention by his clean-cut good looks).
Alternately partnering with or defiant of one another according to vague recollection, superstition or specious logic, the quintet tries to decipher which of them are victims and which are perps. A newspaper article headlines the kidnapping of a rich businessman and his associate, but doesn’t say what the two kidnapped men look like.
Meanwhile, back at the ransom drop-off point, the kidnapped tycoon’s wife (Bridget Moynahan) accompanies the police as the kidnappers slip the trap laid for them. Suspense is meant to be generated when the gang (led by the ever-intense Peter Stormare) makes its way back to the warehouse for a final rendezvous before the men trapped inside have fully recalled their identities.
Waynee’s script seems geared toward quirky, non-sequitur chatfests, ideally conducted in dialogue-filled long takes of the sort that Tarantino excels at, so thesps’ makeshift alliances or instant animosities can seem to form organically. Yet helmer over-cuts suspicious glances, action and interactions, sidetracking attention to minutiae such as insert-shots of hands futilely sawing window bars.
Brand has assembled a cast of world class improvisers, yet doesn’t take advantage of their own particularized, inflected rhythms, as each ritualistically experiences a jump-cut fragmentary flashback in front of the same bathroom mirror.
Nevertheless, these clueless characters trying to interpret their instinctive reactions as indications of their innate goodness or badness affords a novel “Memento”-like angle on their personalities that veterans like Pantoliano and Kinnear pounce on with glee. Paradoxically, Caviezel manages to exude more personality as a morally ambivalent cipher than he did portraying larger-than-life legends like Jesus Christ or Bobby Jones.
Tech credits seem more suited to an extended music video.