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Ethical dilemmas abound as Unthinkable probes the limits of what we are willing to give up in the name of the greater good. Would we ignore our better judgment? Would we step on someone's civil liberties? Would we take someone's life? Director Gregor Jordan and his capable cast pose these questions in a ragged morality play disguised as a beat-the-clock thriller with political undertones. That they manage to present cogent arguments from both sides of the 'torture as interrogation method' debate with equanimity is a testament to their abilities.
In the opening moments of the film, we meet Steven Younger (Martin Sheen), an American citizen who served his country during military action in Iraq. We also meet Yusuf, a concerned Muslim who believes that American occupation in Islamic nations has only hurt all parties involved on either side of the equation. Knowing full well that he will be branded a terrorist, Yusuf plants 3 nuclear bombs in 3 American cities and prepares a statement saying that they will be detonated unless his demands are met. This sets up the first dichotomy within the film since Younger and Yusuf are the very same person.
With Younger's bombs in place, we meet Agent Helen Brody (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Henry 'H' Humphries (Samuel L. Jackson) who will be tasked with locating the bombs while 10 million lives hang in the balance. While Brody is a dedicated FBI agent working with the Anti-Terrorism unit, H is something else altogether. A tense opening paints him as a paranoid man with a lethal set of skills who is kept hidden away from public view until he has to be wielded as a blunt instrument. He is proficient in 'enhanced' interrogation techniques that sure look like torture to me. When Brody and H are called to a secretive location hidden in plain sight, a local school gymnasium, they discover that the authorities have already captured Younger.
Since Younger hasn't revealed anything during the course of his interrogation thus far, it is decided that H has to take a crack at him. Brody remains a concerned witness uneasy with the alliance she has been forced into by her boss (Martin Donovan). H justifies her concern by walking into Younger's interrogation chamber and promptly lopping off one of his fingers with a fire axe. From there, things become immeasurably worse as H brings his considerable experience to bear against Younger's all too human body. As desperation mounts, Brody uses her decidedly softer, more compassionate tactics but gets nothing out of Younger other than a vicious tongue-lashing that showcases Sheen's nuanced portrayal. With very little time to spare and the undesirable slowly morphing into the inevitable, H is instructed to pull out all the stops. This leads us into the surprising climax that almost makes everything before it look like a schoolyard romp.
While there are plenty of peripheral characters inhabiting the edges of this film including Gil Bellows and Brandon Routh as fellow FBI agents and Stephen Root as H's handler, this film belongs to 3 characters. Brody, Younger and H form three vertices of a triangle that keeps collapsing and erecting itself as dictated by shifts in power. Moss plays Brody as an authority figure with a sympathetic edge. Although she consistently aims for the high road when handling Younger there is a key scene where she is pushed too far revealing a bit of ugliness hidden within. As the catalyst for all this turmoil, Sheen gives Younger added dimensions which prevent him from being a cut-and-dry villain. While his methods are deplorable, there is something about the way he states his case that suggests in a perfect world he could be a leader of men.
This brings me to the single most impressive characterization in the entire film. Samuel L. Jackson turns in a powerhouse performance here. He brings his trademark intensity to H's character and somehow makes him brutally direct and mysterious at the same time. After the opening scenes set him us as a loving family man, we are unprepared for the incredible capacity for violence that also resides within him. While many of the characters perceive H as a shackled monster who is doing their bidding, he carries himself as a prisoner of his own abilities. Everybody has a role to play and he accepts his because he can do things that nobody else will even allow themselves to consider. This gives him a disturbing cockiness early in the proceedings which slowly fades away as he realizes Younger will force him to dig deeper into his bag of tricks than he would like to.
Speaking of bags of tricks, I have to give credit to Gregor Jordan for almost pulling off a realistic thriller about the nature of torture. I say almost because the film stumbles badly during the climax. On a positive note, Jordan and his cinematographer Oliver Stapleton give the film a deliberately flat look, as if to suggest that even horrible things spring from the mundane. The interrogation chamber is brightly lit to the point that it seems sterile and cold like an operating room in a hospital. For a movie featuring so much torture, Jordan also does a good job of suggesting the most horrific acts while keeping the grisly details off screen for the most part. Unfortunately his restraint can't prevent Peter Woodward's screenplay from going off the rails at the very end. At a key moment, H loses his cool and commits an act that takes the film so far over the top that he is reduced to a caricature of himself. Moments later when he says that what he has to do next is unthinkable, I almost laughed out loud at the implication that what had just occurred was standard operating procedure.
All this brings me to the final moments of the film. This release includes the theatrical version of the film as well as an extended cut that features an alternate ending. I chose to view the extended cut. I chose poorly. While the theatrical cut ends on a point of searing ambiguity, the alternate ending tacks on an unnecessary reveal that only undermines Brody's moral stand and takes the film's message into murky waters. Although I often find alternate endings enjoyable purely from a "What If?" stance, this is one of those cases where they clearly should have quit while they were ahead.
The widescreen image was presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. A few instances of moiré aside, the image was fairly clear. Some of the darker scenes were lacking in shadow detail but they didn't bother me too much. The intentionally flat visual presentation was a good fit for the realistic approach to the material at hand.
The audio was presented in an English 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound track. The mix was free of any defects and served the material well. Sheen's sounds of pain and anguish were disturbingly spot-on. Subtitles were presented in English and English SDH.
Besides 8 Previews (Shinjuku Incident, Harry Brown, The Square, The Runaways, Defendor, The Road, Wild Things: Foursome and Chloe), we get a Commentary with Director Gregor Jordan. I found the commentary to be an informative and engaging one. This is partly due to Jordan's conversational tone. He discusses larger thematic concerns and shares anecdotes about making the film rather than dryly commenting about what is being shown on screen. There is some discussion of how he essentially approached it as a thriller with topical elements rather than a pointed political piece. With that said, Jordan himself has no qualms about getting political during his commentary. He clearly states his views and takes specific individuals within the previous administration to task. It's not all heavy-handed seriousness as Jordan also tells tales of how the FBI got involved with the production. His stories of working with a torture advisor are also eye-opening. Besides some praise for the cast and an explanation of the film's visual approach, Jordan also lays bare the logic surrounding the film's extended ending. It's an interesting listen that confirms how test audiences merely get in the way of a director's vision.
Unthinkable is a thought provoking look at how we define our own humanity in the face of extreme adversity. When overwhelming odds force us to reconsider basic moral principles, we make choices that stay with us for the rest of our lives. Gregor Jordan relies on excellent performances by his entire cast, especially Samuel L. Jackson to drive this point home. While the extended cut of the film doesn't quite stick the landing, the theatrical cut ends on a refreshingly nerve-wracking note. Recommended.