“Unforgettable” doesn’t linger in the memory. Cult modern noir-meister John Dahl’s yarn of a forensic scientist obsessed with discovering his wife’s murderer packs an explosive punch in its opening reels, but becomes progressively less impressive as the twists and body count mount. Reception at its packed Berlin festival world preem, where it opened the Panorama section’s main program Feb. 16, was generally disappointing, and Stateside business looks set to tail off fast once initial curiosity fades. Pic should, however, click in ancillary.
Dahl’s gradual career rise through the cleverly plotted neo-noirs “Kill Me Again,””Red Rock West” and “The Last Seduction” raised expectations for this first foray into the bigger-budget arena to almost steam heat among his cinephile following. “Unforgettable” shows clear signs of the helmer’s stated desire to strike into new ground, but the result isn’t sufficiently fresh or as well worked out as his previous pics to be able to dub this an exciting departure. Aside from unconvincing casting of Linda Fiorentino as a plain-Jane scientist, pic also suffers from being too much a slave to plotting that’s not much better than an average whodunit.
Most strikingly, it fails to resonate afterward in the way of “Red Rock” or “Seduction.” Despite an interesting lead perf by Ray Liotta, general audiences are likely to be put off by the lack of real characters to root for and the gradual reliance on twists for their own sake as the movie progresses.
The first few reels, however, are stunners, as the camera roams over the bloody corpses in a Seattle drugstore massacre, and hotshot medical examiner David Krane (Liotta) arrives to hunt for clues. At the crime scene, he discovers a rolled-up matchbook that exactly matches one found at his wife’s murder, for which he was initially the prime suspect but later acquitted because of inadmissible evidence. The bad odor of that acquittal still lingers.
Krane subsequently meets Martha Briggs (Fiorentino), a neurobiologist who’s been working on memory transference by injecting a cocktail of brain fluid and a special carrier solution into rats. So far, she hasn’t tried it out on humans, though the possibilities for police detection are enormous. Possessed by a wild idea, Krane steals some of his dead wife’s brain fluid and Martha’s solution, and shoots up at home in the den where his wife was murdered.
As he suspected, he’s able to relive his wife’s murder through her memories of the event. Repeating the same process with fluid from the brain of a female victim of the drugstore massacre, Krane clearly sees the face of the killer.
The movie’s opening 40 minutes are a tour de force of atmospheric direction, terrific noirish photography by Jeffrey Jur (mixing Vancouver locations with the real Seattle), and a powerful effects track through which Christopher Young’s dark, moody score also prowls.
But problems start to mount in the second and third acts. Krane is able to draw the face of the killer in exact detail, apparently because the brain fluid of the drugstore victim, an art student, also has passed along her skills. (This Jekyll-and-Hyde-like riff is one of several interesting ideas not developed.) He also continues to get scattered memory flashes well after the initial injection has worn off.
Both Martha and Krane’s police colleagues think he’s nuts, but Krane isn’t about to be stopped, so Martha tags along.
From there, the movie simply settles into an offbeat whodunit, with Krane and the cops tracking down the drugstore killer, and Krane subsequently shooting up with his brain fluid, thereby discovering the probable real killer of his wife.
Dahl and his whole team keep the action moving forward and the twists coming, but the movie is so plot-intensive that there’s little room for real character development. More seriously, there are basically no more new ideas beyond those laid out in the opening reels — and no earthshaking final revelation along the lines of other memory-based thrillers such as “Jacob’s Ladder.” The truth, when it emerges, is surprisingly conventional.
Most interesting is the casting of Liotta, who brings a whole baggage of past characters to the Krane role, including a maybe-he-did-it-all-along suspicion on which the actor cleverly trades. Dahl’s high-stakes casting of Fiorentino, however, simply doesn’t work.
Third-billed Peter Coyote is reliable, but only comes into his own in the latter stages. Rest of the cast is fine within genre conventions, though Kim Cattrall is thrown away in a minor role as Krane’s sister-in-law. Tech credits are classy at all levels.