UNKNOWN is a diverting entertainment, well-plotted with a story that is just convoluted enough to keep the action barreling along with a nice selection of twists, some of which have a tantalizing foreshadowing that adds texture without spilling too many beans. Taking its cue from the best sort of Hitchcockian premise, the innocent man plunked squarely into the middle of a nightmare not of his own making, it simultaneously plumbs the worlds of biotechnology and political extremism and delivers a film that keeps one step ahead of its audience while always playing absolutely fair with the clues.
The biotechnology is one Martin (Liam Neeson), a botanist attending a conference in Berlin. Its his first trip there, and while he will be trading facts with fellow scientists, his lovely wife, Liz (January Jones), will be taking in the local art scene. A forgotten briefcase, a taxi spluttering into a river after a freak accident, and the resulting nasty knock on the head leave Martin questioning everything, including who he is, as opposed to who it is that is wife thinks he is after he wakes up from a coma four days later. By then shes paired up with Aiden Quinn, who she claims is actually her husband, Martin, and that shes never seen Neeson before. It being Thanksgiving, there is no recourse to the American Embassy and his boss back home in the United States is on vacation and unreachable. His complete lack of papers, including his passport, insure that he is unable to prove to any authorities that he is who is claims to be, and that he is unable to rent a hotel room in the middle of a Berlin winter with the cash he has on hand. That blow to the head during the accident that so concerned his doctors makes his memory faulty. He has the wherewithal, however, to notice when hes being followed by menacing types, and to track down the cab driver that pulled him from the sinking car that started all his trouble. Fortunately, the cabby, Gina (Diane Kruger) is a credibly tough woman, a Bosnian without documentation, who eventually comes around to wanting to help him. As does Jurgen (Bruno Ganz), the private detective who is proud of his status as a veteran of the East German secret police with a genius for details.
Plots and sub-plots abound, including the one involving political extremism in the form of a moderate Saudi prince with charity on a global scale on his mind, and a string of assassination attempts on him as a result. At the forefront, and keeping the suspense quotient high, is the complete hopelessness of Martins situation and his utter confusion that has him second-guessing everything, including himself. Aside from his inability to speak German, there is never any hard evidence one way or another about what exactly is the root of Martins problems, though the circumstantial evidence has a tantalizing quality to it, as the ersatz Martin knows things that only the real Martin should know, and the real Martins flashbacks dont illuminate so much as muddle.
The performances are in keeping with the deliberate muddle that is Martins POV. Neeson lumbers along as a man in Martins position ought to do, equal parts paranoia, confusion, and determination pushing him along, while maintaining a core decency that makes him sympathetic even if he is crazy. Kruger has the proper air of mystery and initial disinclination to get involved, Jones is a peeved ice princess, while Ganz becomes the most intriguing character, if only for his ironic delivery of Jurgens precis on Teutonic memory and the best way to ferret out a liar.
UNKNOWN has an insistent, but never overwrought, air about it, even with the car chase through nocturnal Berlin, one noteworthy for being passably believable in context. The holes are irksome, without detracting much from the fun of trying to work out who is what and why, and then having to start all over again from scratch.