Unknown (2011) | Review by Mark Leidner
The Lincoln Lawyer, a thriller coming out later this year, in which Matthew McConaughey mixes it up A Time to Kill-style with Ryan Phillippe, looks awesome. Except for the fact that the preview reveals the whole story. Movies cohere around set pieces—a helicopter crashing into a bunch of kites, a chess match on a rope bridge above an active volcano, the amphibious invasion of mainland—not characters; the literary is straightened like unmeandering streams to flow toward Freudian spectacle. By showing where everything is going to go, über-trailers prepare us to be less unsatisfied with turns, three months in the future, we would otherwise find unconvincing. If seeing is believing, remembering seeing something is really believing; and when you believe in a story at least a little beforehand, its spectacle’s plausibility ceiling gets a proportional hoist.
Although not a fantasy, the plot of Unknown does feature a unique corn. Innocently en route to a conference in which a bunch of politicians and biotechnologists will alter forever with the aforementioned grain the course of human agriculture Liam Neeson’s taxicab leaps a bridge and slams into the surface of a gray, German river. His comatose ass stays submerged for four days, after which he wakes with a beautiful Irish head full of amnesia. Worse, his wife, January Jones (as hot as her name is cold; as pretty as the last is plain; as visually excellent as her initials are alliterative and palatal) doesn’t remember who he is either. A couple decent car chases and some capable “Whoaooa… I think I’ve been… drugged…” POV work glue this otherwise incoherent thriller together. Many computers and cell phones are used throughout by the characters, and yet not ever simply to log into their Gmail, which could’ve instantly resolved every conflict in the movie. Dialogue seemed as if the screenwriters had recently been made fun of by bullies for being too good, and so were feeling insecure and decided to use the movie to flex their their expository muscles:
“We’re in a lab.”
“Yeah. We’re scientists.”
“Instead of spies, you mean?”
(Laughter) “Exactly.” (Picks up plant, examines it casually.) “Anyway, science is over. (Knocks plant off table.) Let’s go get some pie.”
“The diner around the corner…”
(Nods.) “Maybe we’ll accidentally meet someone important to both of us there…”
(Claps shoulder.) “I hope not a spy!”
(They kick over a shelf and walk out.)
My own desire for pie distorts the example, but the style is true to Unknown. A tenuous analogy to poetry (and I pray the last time I beat this dead horse): something like a willful negative capability endures, i.e., the hypocrisy of professing to write in the vacuum of non-intent, cutting your literary-social facility with a perfectly curated critical illiteracy; consistently declaiming to know less than the Joneses about your process, motive, and vision as you meticulously sculpt each glittering stanza—how the doctrine of not knowing has become so commoditized that in one semester, with a few procedural exercises, you can teach people who have never even read a line of blank verse to foment fragment after fragment that in a blind test not even Tiresias could discern from Celan. Which is to say, poems start to work like movies; their falsities gelled in by the contextualizing nets we string around and underneath them. Poetry becomes whatever its preview supersedes. As an almost honest man continually caught in the tractor beam of casuistry, I celebrate my participation in this echo chamber between truth and farce. I neither write poetry nor movies, but destroy both and gild my own complicity until it sings.