No, man. You wanna kill me, you do it to my face.
–Rancher Shirt (Barry Pepper)
A man in a jean jacket (Jim Caviezel) wakes up on a warehouse floor. Groggily, he scopes his surroundings, the space generic, without context. Stained walls, metal shelving, office chairs on wheels. In one chair sits a man tied up (Joe Pantoliano), and handcuffed to a shelf, he spots another man (Jeremy Sisto), bloody from a recent gunshot. Jean Jacket stumbles into the bathroom, where he stares into the mirror and rubs his face as he wonders out loud, “Who the fuck are you?”
Turns out that Jean Jacket and the others have no memories of who they are or how they got here. They do see that they’re all the worse for wear, surmise that they’ve been subjected to some sort of chemical “gas” that has erased their memories, and that they are, indeed, violent men. Who’s on which side, however, is, as the film’s title underlines, Unknown. Also unknown are their names. Though they locate — very conveniently — a newspaper clipping that names two local kidnap victims (the men rightly assume these are among their number) — for most of the movie, they are identifiable only by their prominent traits. Thus: Jean Jacket, Handcuffed Man, Bound Man (on the chair), Broken Nose (Greg Kinnear), and Rancher Shirt (Barry Pepper).
Given that Jean Jacket is your first point of contact, you are inclined to take him as the “hero,” or at least the character with whom you will connect emotionally and follow through the rest of the proceedings. In this, Unknown, directed by first timer Simon Brand, has an intriguing fundamental concept. Given that manly men movies rely on types, why not abandon the pretense that they are “individuals” and name them as such? The situation here is also generic, though somewhat mixed: equal parts Saw, Cube, and Reservoir Dogs, with a dash of Memento, the primary reference for movies featuring characters without memories, though Bourne Identity works just as well here). The action is focused in a small space with thick walls and barred windows, made urgent by a gruff-voiced phone call that promises the caller and crew are “coming” by sundown.
For most of the running time, the men in the warehouse struggle to find a way out, picking fights. They spend a lot of energy trying to get to a window up high in the wall, fighting over a glock they discover among the detritus, and finding ways to use the f-word: asked if he remembers his name, Broken Nose snarls, “My name? Fuck your mother, that’s my name” (watching Kinnear deliver this line provides its own small pleasure). Eventually, they resign themselves to the coming encounter with “Snakeskin” (Peter Stormare) and other nasty men, an encounter that will surely be violent, though no one knows who will be on which side. One or two resist their designations: Bound Man doesn’t want to be bound, Broken Nose resents that mishap. Bound Man rages at the others’ joint decision to leave him that way (“This isn’t ‘teams’! We’re all in this together, period”). For his part, Broken Nose taunts him, rather colorfully, “You’ll always be the pussy who’s tied up to an office chair.”
Trying to decipher themselves, the men look through their own belongings, and challenge one another’s findings. Jean Jacket finds an engraved lighter in his pocket, though he doesn’t remember being a smoker and the “Erin” engraved on it might be a wife, a daughter or someone else. Handcuffed Man remembers a childhood scene, when he was friends with Jean Jacket, but is he lying, method acting, or delirious because he’s dying? The movie, for the most part, maintains a seeming sense of humor about its premise: Rancher Shirt observes solemnly that the warehouse is very carefully and expensively locked down: “There’s something either very dangerous or very valuable in here.” Ah yes, that would be the manly men.
You know some of them will be dead by film’s end. It’s the generic way. While the men debate existential and other questions among themselves — should they untie Bound Man or is he bound for a good reason? Who shot Handcuffed Man? And how come Jean Jacket is so damned sensitive when he might be the most ruthless killer of all? — the movie expands its visual and narrative field with flashbacks and cutaways to current action elsewhere. So, you see Eliza (Bridget Moynahan) involved in a ransom money drop, clicking around on her high heels with a bag full of money. She’s immediately identified as the wife of one of the kidnap victims, working with mostly bland (save for Chris Mulkey, always gnarly) and badly underdcovered detectives (anyone, even one-day extras, would spot them as cops).
But even as you anticipate what’s next, formula demands that at least some of the men’s judgments will be wrong. As soon as Rancher Shirt tells Jean Jacket, “For whatever reason, you’re the only one I feel like I can trust,” you know he can’t be trusted and that Rancher Shirt is in for a rude surprise. Or not. His optimism prods the others to question their own ostensible darkness: are they villains because they’re born/written that way, or can they make choices, even now, after their pasts are done, though not remembered, except in sketchy, unconvincing flashback sequences? “The choices we make from here on out of this shit-hole,” Rancher Shirt insists, “That’s what’s gonna define us.” He can only hope.