If you are like me (and God bless you if you are), when you popped in the Clerks II DVD, you were confronted with the trailer for Unknown, and you thought to yourself, "Wow, that title sure is right! How have I not heard about this movie?" The film has a cast of instantly recognizable faces and the premise sounds very interesting -- it seems as if it should have received more publicity. But, then again, this movie is from the Weinsteins, who, when they were with Miramax, were notorious for making movies only to have them released years later with little fanfare. Typically, once these films see the light of day, it's clear why they were hidden. In the case of Unknown, which is making its way to DVD, the answers aren't so obvious.
As Unknown opens, five men awaken in an industrial building. Unfortunately, due to a chemical leak, they have no recollection of who they are or why they are there. Jean Jacket (Jim Caviezel) and Rancher Shirt (Barry Pepper) wake up unencumbered and relatively unharmed. Broken Nose (Greg Kinnear) finds that his face has been injured. Bound Man (Joe Pantoliano) is tied to an office chair. And Handcuffed Man (Jeremy Sisto) is dangling from a catwalk by his shackled wrist, and he's been shot. As the men come around, they begin to explore the building. The door has an electronic lock and the windows are barred. A discarded newspaper contains a story concerning the kidnapping of a prominent businessman. A brief phone call further suggests that something nefarious has happened in the building. Given these clues, the men assume that some of them are the kidnappers and some are the victims. But who is who?
As the day wears on, the men alternate between attempting to find an escape route from the building and fighting amongst themselves. A second phone call informs the group that the rest of the bad guys are on their way to the building. The five trapped men now only have a short amount of time to decide if they are going to work together or not. Meanwhile, we learn that the wife of one of the kidnapping victims (Bridget Moynahan) is working with the police to find her husband and they are tracking the kidnappers.
Part Reservoir Dogs and part Saw, I'm sure that Unknown was an easy sell, and the intriguing premise would certainly help to explain why so many known actors signed on to the project. Director Simon Brand and writer Matthew Waynee, both making their feature-film debuts, have crafted a thriller which is at once familiar and original. The fact that the characters don't know who they are means that the viewer must base all of their opinions on these people based solely on their actions within the running time of the film -- unlike other movies where the characters have implied or explicit pasts and futures. The tricky part is that each character does good and bad things as they are trying to establish who they are and plan an escape, so the audience must keep guessing who are the kidnappers and who are the villains.
The problem with Unknown is that it keeps us guessing for too long. The movie really gets bogged down in the middle as the five men argue and try to convince one another that they can't be the bad guys. Alliances are formed, but this does little to spice up the proceedings. The scenes involving the police investigation feel very disconnected from the story happening inside of the building. The fact that the other kidnappers are coming should add tension to the film, but since the movie doesn't give us enough clues as to who these abductors will side with once they arrive, things get somewhat boring. There should be a sense of "Oh know, I really like (insert character here) and I just know the kidnappers are going to kill him.", but this doesn't come until the very end of the film.
Yet, the ending of Unknown truly helps to redeem the movie. The films opens with a great idea and then gets lost on the way to the conclusion. But, this conclusion contains not one, but two wicked twists and they really help to put the rest of the film into perspective. To be fair, the first twist is poorly delivered and some viewers may miss it when it's first announced., but when combined with the last scene, the final 10 minutes of Unknown are quite powerful.
The movie is also aided by the great cast. Unfortunately, Sisto and Pantoliano aren't given much to do, but Caviezel, Pepper, and Kinnear carry the film. Their constant fighting is nerve-wracking, and until it grows tiresome, it makes the film worth watching. There are also nice turns by Peter Stormare, late of Prison Break and Chris Mulkey, who was so menacing on Twin Peaks.
Unknown makes its presence felt on DVD courtesy of The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The transfer on this DVD looks fine, as the image is sharp and clear, for the most part. There is a slight sheen of grain visible on the image, but I can't help but wonder if this was intentional, to give the film a more gritty feel. The colors are fine and the framing appears to be accurate. The interior scenes are often dark and moody, but the action is always visible. There is very little artifacting and no video noise to be had here.
The DVD features a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. This track brings us clear dialogue and sound effects. The fact that the bulk of the film takes place inside of a warehouse creates many opportunities for audio effects. The stereo effects are quite good, while the surround sound effects, which deliver every small noise from inside the building, are very effective. There are only a few opportunities for subwoofer effects, but these are nice as well.
The only extra feature is a series of DELETED SCENES. There are nine scenes here, which run a total of 9 minutes. Most are simply extended versions of scenes which exist in the film, however, two of the scenes feature a deleted subplot in which another unexpected visitor comes to the building. According to IMDB.com, a 55-minute behind-the-scenes featurette was made about the making of Unknown, but that piece certainly doesn't appear on this DVD.
So, now we're back to our original question; why did Unknown only play on 4 screens and gross $24,000? Truthfully, I don't know. The movie isn't the best ever made, but it certainly isn't bad and it's better than junk like Deck the Halls. At 85 minutes, I get the feeling that the film has been edited as much as possible. Despite the fact that the middle dampens some of the suspense, Unknown is still worth knowing.