The thought of amnesia is terrifying to most of us. Forgetting who you are—whether from brain trauma, Alzheimer’s, or another neurocalamity—means losing your self-consciousness, your human identity. Many novels and films have played on this fear, but Unknown, the new thriller starring Liam Neeson, is the only film I can think of to turn the mirror around. After a car accident and a four-day coma, Neeson recalls quite quickly who he is. It’s the people around him—his friends, his colleagues, his wife—who do not recognize him. If anything, this is a fate more terrifying than garden-variety amnesia.
Who is he if the people closest to him do not recognize him? To put the question more generally, Who am I without a You?
Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) and his wife (January Jones) arrive in Berlin for a biotech conference. In what proves to be the most implausible plot development in a cleverly crafted thriller, Harris inattentively leaves his attaché case with passport on a porter’s dolly at the airport. Realizing this when he reaches his hotel, he hops a cab back to the airport to retrieve his identity papers. But something falls off a truck in front of the cab, the cab skids off a bridge into icy water, the female cabby pulls Harris out, and he wakes up four days later in a hospital bed. He wonders why no one has inquired for him since the accident, then heads to the conference hotel to find his wife. Not only doesn’t she recognize him but another man claims to be her husband. The man (Aidan Quinn) also claims to be Dr. Martin Harris.
The problem for screenwriters Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell is to make this flip of the mirror plausible. How could his wife not know him?! How could the second “Martin Harris” have the right passport? Is Martin #1 dreaming? Is he drugged? Is he the butt of some massive conspiracy that his wife of five years must have been in on since before their wedding? None of the above, it turns out.
Any more plot details would quickly spoil the film, although two performances must be noted: Diane Kruger as the cabby and especially veteran German character actor Bruno Ganz as a sort of identity detective who helps Martin #1 solve the mystery. (“We Germans are experts at forgetting,” says the former East German secret policeman.) The action, and there’s plenty, includes a couple of absurd car chases through Berlin streets, including one in which Neeson proves the world’s slickest stunt driver in reverse; and a final fight scene, in which Neeson has an unforgettable punchline beginning with “I didn’t forget everything . . . ”
Excitement aside, the interest of Unknown lies in the fundamental questions it poses and then leads to. At one point, thinking he might be going insane, Neeson’s character says, “Insanity is a war between being told who you are and knowing who you are.” All our lives we fight off others’ efforts to pin us with who they think we are, and still we are left with the question: If no one can tell you who you are, are you?