In a tense Euro-thriller, Liam Neeson's character fights to discover his identity after an accident.
Do audiences have the patience for atmospheric, Hitchcockian psychological thrillers anymore? "Unknown" wagers that they do. The film features several bruising car chases and a kaleidoscopic climax borrowed from a stunt-heavy Jason Bourne movie, but much of its length is patiently expended making us wonder whether Liam Neeson is losing his marbles. Neeson has a fine way with expressions of anguish. This is brow-knitting of a very high order.
Visiting Berlin to attend a biotech conference, Neeson is injured in a traffic accident that leaves him with partial amnesia. The woman he arrived with now claims she is not his wife. To his astonishment she produces another husband (onetime heartthrob Aidan Quinn, now menacingly thickset) who knows every detail of the life Neeson believes is his.
Passport lost, Neeson spends his last few deutschmarks making futile phone calls seeking someone who will vouch for him. Is he paranoid, brain-damaged or the victim of a Byzantine conspiracy? Director Jaume Collet-Serra ("Orphan") is in no rush to resolve this case of mistaken identity. His film lets tension build as gradually as Chinese water torture.
Neeson carries most of the film on his capable shoulders, keeping us on his character's side though we know next to nothing about him. Along the way he picks up two confidantes who are dealing with identity crises of their own. Diane Kruger plays a plucky Bosnian refugee driving taxis to pay for forged documents that will allow her to stay in Germany. And the ever-wonderful Bruno Ganz (unforgettable as the table-pounding Hitler in "Downfall") runs away with his scenes as a retired East German spook turned private investigator.
The same can't be said for January Jones (of TV's "Mad Men"), who plays the woman Neeson believes is his wife. I can't recall a more tone-deaf, robotic and superficial performance in a feature film. A sock puppet would have been more convincing.
The notion of who we are and who we appear to be is underscored by cleverly placed mirrors throughout the film. The pieces of the puzzle fit together a tad too conveniently in the bombastic finale, but "Unknown" is seven-eighths of a topnotch thriller.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186