Unknown (USA/UK/France/Germany/Japan/Canada, 2011)

unknown-posterDirected by: Jaume Collet-Serra. I probably could have abbreviated all of the countries who contributed funding to this movie, but that listing just looks so comically long, I couldn’t resist. This is the director who did Non-Stop, which was one of the higher points in my personal Liam Neeson film festival, so I had to check this out too, and wow, what a weird movie. It’s another textbook Neeson scenario, and I think that maybe this Collet-Serra guy is the Paul Verhoeven to Neeson’s Schwarzenegger, you know what I mean? Neeson works with lots of directors in lots of movies, but I feel like this guy really gets it, you know? The plot reads like a Philip K. Dick paranoia-thriller, full of false identity backed by a huge, shadowy government conspiracy. This also reminds me a bit of Frantic, the American (or in Neeson’s case, “American”) tourist couple in a European capital, whose ordinary civilian lives are pulled into a world of intrigue and danger and complications (interesting to superimpose this plot on top of historical American anxieties about European involvement, which are on my mind at the moment thanks to the Paris 1919 book)—and for that matter, this movie plays on the same Euro-angst as the Taken films, the third of which I’ll get to next. As for the film itself, it’s pretty textbook Neeson, as I mentioned, but there was enough stuff going on that I really liked, little elements here and there, to place it a notch or two above, say, A Walk Among the TombstonesFor starters, it’s set in Berlin, which I’m pretty interested in at the moment, but also I’m a sucker for this kind of spy/false identity/Dickian paranoia stuff at the best of times, and I find it really enjoyable at a base level, no matter how technically “stupid” the whole movie is. Make no mistake, this is a stupid movie, but as with all of these European-slanted action movies, it doesn’t have the Michael Bay saturation of sexism and willful and defiant ignorance that characterizes most American action films. Bruno Ganz popping up as the wily, mysterious ex-Stasi agent, the only one who believes Neeson’s crazy story, is so good, partly for the gravity that his presence automatically brings into this thing, and partly for the delicious meta-absurdity in seeing Bruno Ganz pop up in a dumb movie like this. The showdown between Ganz and the incredibly underrated character actor Frank Langella (Nixon in Frost/Nixon) is probably the best 2 minutes of acting in the whole film; they’re so great, in fact, that it actually makes the film weaker by showing us that these two actors, whose story is way more interesting and better played, is a tiny, dispensable part of the actual movie. Come to think of it, this movie is packed with amazing actors doing a pretty good job with what meagre script and characterization is required of them here: Aidan Quinn (who also starred opposite Neeson in the Michael Collins movie), Diane Kruger (the scene stealing movie star from Inglourious Basterds), Sebastian Koch (the good guy from The Lives of Others), and Karl Markovics (from The Counterfeiters). Unfortunately, I have to bear the bad news here, and it pains me to say it, but poor January Jones…it turns out she’s really just not a very good actor. As in, she’s actually quite, quite, quite bad. And this raises a lot of questions about acting and the direction of actors, etc. This might be an example of what I  previously called Robert Carlyle Syndrome (but which I’ve been thinking of changing to Tom Cruise Syndrome because he’s a bigger name and his examples are much more pronounced), basically to describe how you’ll see an actor in an amazing performance, in this case for many years as Betty Draper, just nailing it out of the ballpark, fitting the role like a glove, but then you see the actor in something else, and that something is horrible, and they’re horrible, and their awfulness in the role is a major contributing factor to why the overall thing is so terrible, just as much as their greatness in the great role was a contributing factor to the overall greatness of the great thing they were. Other than Mad Men, I had only seen her in one thing, in an unfortunate throwaway role in X-Men: First Class, the awfulness of that performance I chalked up to an overall lacklustre role and film overall. In this movie, however, none of the roles are particularly deep or complex, the whole thing is pretty hokey and faux-intellectual (like a movie for people who thought Inception was too pretentious), but all of the actors (and a very formidable cast it is!) are doing the best they can with the garbage dialogue and stunted characterization they have, and it all works because everyone’s at the same place. In this case, I hate to say it, but January’s acting in this was actually pretty distracting—she was dramatically more stiff and awkward in her line delivery and her overall acting, the way she tries to convey emotions on her face just doesn’t work, and the effect is that she looks like someone doing a parody of a bad cue-card reading for every fucking line. And what’s truly amazing is that, for Betty Draper, her breakout role which will forever define her, this worked out perfectly! What January Jones does is exactly what Betty Draper needed, this enigmatic cold distance with some warmth of emotion trying to get through but only succeeding rarely, in small bursts here and there. The tragedy here is that she likely won’t find any other role that fits her very specific kind of acting because—I hate to say it—it’s just bad acting. I hope she proves me wrong and that I see her in something that’s amazing, and not just a string of awful roles in awful movies. But, to be honest, when you’re in a huge role in a huge TV series seen by everyone, it’s hard to outrun the shadow of it no matter how your acting is, and she’ll likely fade into the same regrettable obscurity, no better or worse, than Jon Hamm or Elizabeth Moss. So there’s that.


5 responses to “Unknown (USA/UK/France/Germany/Japan/Canada, 2011)

  1. Pingback: The Lady Vanishes (UK, 1938) | Offhand Reviews·

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