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Film / Unknown (2011)

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"Do you know what it feels like to become insane, doctor? It's like a war between being told who you are and knowing who you are. Which do you think wins?"

Unknown is a conspiracy action-thriller film released in 2011 and starring Liam Neeson, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. The film is based on the 2003 French novel Hors de moi, published in English as Out of My Head, by French author Didier Van Cauwelaert.

Neeson plays botanist Dr Martin Harris, who brings his wife along to attend a biotechnology conference in Berlin. However, he gets into a car accident while riding the taxi back to the airport to pick up luggage he left behind. When he awakes in hospital, he leaves to find his wife. However, Liz denies knowing who Martin is... and another man is wearing Martin's name tag and claiming to be him is standing right next to her - and she acknowledges "Martin B" as the real deal. In a foreign land for the first time, pursued by mysterious terrorists and with nobody to trust, Harris must get all the help he can find, including from Gina (Diane Kruger) the driver of the cab that plunged into the river and Jürgen (Bruno Ganz), a former Stasi agent-turned private investigator.


The film not only has a Twist Ending, it has twist beginnings, twist middles and twist three-quarters - hence the large amount of marked spoilers below.

Not to be confused with the 2006 James Caviezel movie.

Unknown contains examples of:

  • Actor Allusion:
  • Always on Duty: Nurse Gretchen seems to be personally assigned to Martin's case.
  • Amnesiac Dissonance: Despite his heroic new identity, Martin learns he used to be a professional terrorist/mercenary-assassin before the accident.
  • Arab Oil Sheikh: Prince Shada is the sponsor of the biotechnology conference, and is a rich, adventerous and idealistic guy who wants to support genetically engineering food to help feed the world's growing numbers of starving people.
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  • Artistic License – History: As explained here, what Jürgen stated about the Stasi's methods for distinguishing a liar from a truthteller is the opposite of the Stasi's real-life interpretation: a liar has a pre-programmed version of facts which is difficult to deviate from, while an innocent person will rephrase and reformulate.
  • Asleep for Days: Martin wakes up at the hospital after four days of Convenient Coma.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: The Saudi prince is named 'Shada' which is not an Arabian name for men nor is it for women. The name has no meaning at all in the Arabic language. There is, however, a feminine name close to it, which is (Shatha).
  • Badass Bystander: This movie may be full of highly-trained international assassins, but the person with the highest on-screen kill count is still Gina the cab driver-turned-waitress.
  • Bathroom Break-Out: The assassins arrive to kill Martin as he is taking a shower, and he escapes onto the roof (sorry ladies, he's wearing a bathrobe).
  • Becoming the Mask: At the end of the film, it is revealed that Martin Harris doesn't really exist, and that "he" was merely a cover story manufactured by a shadowy assassination organization. The other man whom Martin sees taking his place after the accident is actually "Martin"'s "replacement". Martin began to believe that he was the identity of his cover story after suffering head trauma during the car crash.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Jürgen, though the threat of betraying contacts might also have played a part.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Gina does it twice, as Hoist by His Own Petard and Car Fu explain.
  • Black-Tie Infiltration: The assassins assume secret identities to be part of a biotechnology summit at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin where they manage to steal secret data from a laptop of speaker Professor Bressler.
  • The Book Cipher: Prof. Bressler's passwords are obscured by an Ottendorf cipher.
  • Car Fu: Gina does this with her taxi when Martin is captured and is going to be killed by the terrorist agent and the agent's boss, Martin's employer Rodney Cole.
  • Casting Gag: Neeson and Quinn played best friends in Michael Collins.
  • Cell Phones Are Useless: In the opening, Martin's cell phone loses reception before he can notify Liz where he is.
  • Chase Scene: The car chase is memorable.
  • Chekhov's Gun: In Martin's flashes, he sees Liz wearing a bathrobe and saying "Are you ready?" But here, she is clearly brunette instead of blonde. She was brunette during their earlier trip to Berlin to plant the bomb.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Gina's taxi driving is a lifesaver... and also the opposite.
  • Coincidental Broadcast: When in hospital, Martin turns on the TV which broadcasts a news report about the Biotech summit, which helps to jog his memory.
  • Collateral Damage: In his home country, Prince Shada's idealistic views have earned him multiple attempts on his life. The villains of the film, Section 15, who are actually targeting Prof. Bressler, decide to take full advantage of this fact, and plan to bomb a party which both men are attending, counting on Shada being mistaken as the intended target of the attack whilst Bressler would be listed as collateral damage, thus throwing any suspicion off his competitors.
  • Conveniently Timed Attack from Behind: When Martin is about to be strangled by the hitman at Gina's place, Gina comes to his aid and rams the syringe into the hitman's neck.
  • Cool Car: The Sheik's Mercedes-Benz SLS.
  • Cool Old Guy: Jürgen.
  • Covers Always Lie: The DVD cover, as well as a poster for the movie, show Liam Neeson with a gun in his hand. Never, in the whole movie, does he hold a gun.
  • Crazy-Prepared: Villain Ball or not, Section 15 were still able to substitute a 'new' Martin Harris with sufficient grounding in the cover story only a few hours after the original Martin's accident; they may have made mistakes in dealing with Martin himself, but they were certainly quick to react to a relatively random accident and adapt accordingly.
  • Cyanide Pill: When Professor Cole goes to see Jürgen, Jürgen empties a sachet of cyanide into his tea and drinks it when he realizes that Cole is not all he seems, and to keep Martin safe.
  • Deadly Road Trip: Being in Berlin, there's no family or friends to vouch for Liam Neeson.
  • Dead Star Walking: Frank Langella portrays a character who dies shortly after being introduced.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Gina the taxi driver, but only when she really needs to.
  • Dull Surprise: Liz gives blank or vague reactions to things, including Martin telling her about his predicament, making the audience doubt about whether her allegiance is to good or evil. She's in on it.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Professor Cole says that he could be at home having Thanksgiving dinner with his family instead of having to "clean up." He also says that his grandson is obsessed with Cold War stuff.
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: The black van, that Gina pushes over the rail of the parking garage, goes up in flames.
  • Eye Cam: Used for the scene where Martin wakes up at the hospital.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Herr Jürgen figures out who Harris really is and that his employers are coming to "clean up," so he drinks a cup of cyanide-laced coffee when Cole visits him. He also mentions that he is already dying from smoking filthy Soviet cigarettes for decades.
  • Fake Memories: Accidentally, Martin's only memories remaining after the Tap on the Head are fake ones derived from his cover identity.
  • Final Exchange: The main protagonist recovers from an explosion in preparation for one last fight against his Evil Doppelgänger. Said doppelganger mocks him saying, "You really forgotten everything, have you?" The response? "I didn't forget everything. I know how to kill you, asshole!"
  • Flashback Effects: Probably overused, including epileptic editing, sepia-tone and dutch tilts.
  • Forgot the Call: After the car accident, Martin wakes up with no memory of his mission.
  • Former Regime Personnel: Jürgen.
  • Four Eyes, Zero Soul: The main assassin, who is bespectacled.
  • Gambit Roulette: The villains' plan depends on Professor Bressler bringing a laptop with some very secret and highly important files in it to a party for no good reason, as well as said extremely important files having no backups at all and there being no colleagues he may have shared his knowledge with.
  • Government Conspiracy: A good deal of hard work went into "erasing" Martin Harris after his accident.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: The people who hired Section 15 to kill Professor Bressler and steal his research are technically this. Section 15 are still the primary threat, and the ones doing all of the heavy lifting, but it's their clients who are indirectly responsible for the entire plot occurring in the first place.
  • Hero Stole My Bike: Gina steals a taxi cab to pursue the baddies who just kidnapped Martin.
  • Highly Visible Password: When Liz types in the passwords, they are visible in plain text. And they are using spaces.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: An assassin tries to inject something in Gina... and she ends up doing it on him instead as he attacks Martin.
    • Elizabeth gets killed by the Time Bomb she helped planting herself.
  • Identity Amnesia: Martin awakens from a coma after a car accident only to find that no one, not even his wife, recognizes him. He then starts to question his true identity.
  • I Hate Past Me: After learning who he really is from Rodney Cole, Martin is disgusted at the kind of person he was before he lost his memories; a terrorist mercenary for hire who was planning to blow up a room full of innocent people just to kill one man. He then makes it his mission to stop the attack and redeem himself.
    Martin: (To Gina, after learning who he really was) "You should've let me drown."
  • Impairment Shot: When the other Martin shows Neeson's character the photo of him and his wife, the latter blacks out and the camera takes his view as he sinks down to the ground.
  • Information Wants to Be Free: The assassins' goal is to prevent the open-source release of a new variety of corn on behalf of agribusiness giants.
  • Insistent Terminology: The fact that Harris would always add "doctor" before his name made him seem really insecure. Might be Fridge Brilliance in light of The Reveal, since Neeson's character learned everything about his persona through pure memorization, and for the reasons explained in the Artistic License – History entry, that may have made him more comfortable repeating the phrase the way he absorbed it.
    • Played straight to the extent that a blow to the head affects memory and another one restores it in somewhat contrived fashion.
  • Irony: Gina gets fired from her job due to the business with Martin, and even denies she ever drove a cab to his face. Later on Martin gets knee deep in it, and Gina has to save him... by jacking a cab.
  • Is This a Joke?: Martin says it quite early.
  • It Was a Gift: Martin always carries a book from his father with him. Also his watch which is a gift from Liz. Turns out both items are planted as part of Martin's cover identity.
  • Just Between You and Me: Professor Cole explains much of the plan to Martin, before trying to have him killed and making it appear like an overdose.
  • Karma Houdini: Martin exposes himself to be responsible for planting a bomb in the hotel 3 months earlier but walks away scot-free. Escaping in the confusion, immediately changing his identity and leaving Berlin the very next day probably had something to do with it.
    • The people who hired Section 15 to kill Professor Bressler presumably get away with their crimes. Sure, their actual plans were foiled, but the only people who could connect them to the bombing are either dead or have disappeared under a new identity, and the world assumes Prince Shada was the intended target.
  • Kick the Dog: The first kill that we see onscreen is performed by the assassin when he goes to the hospital. On the nurse who had earlier given Martin the number of Jürgen, saying that he could help him.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: The amnesia conveniently suppresses all memories of Martin's real life from the past 50-60 years, and retains a meager 0.1% that correspond with a fake persona he recently adopted. Also, Martin keeps his superb driving skills, but not his combat skills... until the end.
  • Leave No Witnesses: The villains murder, or attempt to murder, anyone who has so much as seen them in their attempts to get to Martin.
  • Missed Him by That Much: In several scenes at the art exhibition, Martin manages to pass by the mobster unnoticed by an inch.
  • Missing Child: After the Adlon Hotel begins evacuating due to a terrorist threat, one of Prof. Bressler's daughters wanders off away from her father and he can't catch up to her. She's eventually found by "Martin B" which isn't much better because he's one of the people trying to kill him, and would have done it in front of his children.
  • Mobstacle Course: In the on-foot chase scene through the hospital, the assassin is constantly blocked by people in his path, which prevents him from catching on to Martin.
  • Monumental Damage: As mentioned above, the Adlon Hotel via the bomb hidden in one of its suites.
  • Murder, Inc.: Section 15, Martin's employer, is one of these and will kill just about anyone for the right price.
    • They also don't have any compunctions about killing innocents, as they murder anyone who's merely seen them, and they're willing to blow up an entire party full of people just to kill one man and to cast suspicion off their real target.
  • My Card: The doctor handing his card to Martin.
  • My Life Flashed Before My Eyes: Happens to Martin during defibrillation.
  • Neck Snap: The assassin does this to his first onscreen kill, Martin's nurse at the hospital.
  • No Name Given:
    • Towards the end of the film, it's revealed that Doctor Martin Harris doesn't actually exist, but is merely a cover created by assassins to get close to their target. Martin's real name is never spoken, and the only indication we have towards it is a Canadian passport hidden in his briefcase for a William Sean Carmichael, but it is unknown if this is his actual name or just another cover identity.
    • This also applies to any of the three main villains, such as Liz, Rodney, and "Martin B."
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Martin practically wears this expression permanently throughout the whole film.
    • Also, Herr Strauss, after seeing that Martin was indeed at the hotel three month ago.
    • Don't forget Liz's face when the bomb's timer runs out.
    • Rodney, when the black van goes over the railing of the parking garage with him in it.
    • The viewer themselves may get a small one when Rodney, realising Jürgen has seen through him, unbuttons his jacket as the old spy talks about Section 15. Genre Savvy viewers will know that he's preparing to draw a pistol.
  • Once More, with Clarity!: Martin often has flashbacks of having a picture taken with his wife while on their honeymoon, after she gave him the watch. Later, it is revealed that this was a posed studio shoot and that Martin and his "wife" are merely terrorist agents.
  • The Password Is Always "Swordfish": Never derive passwords from details of your personal lives. Professor Bressler uses Latin names of plants connected to his twin daughters' names as passwords for his highly sensitive data.
  • The Patient Has Left the Building: Martin leaves the hospital against the doctor's advice.
  • Police Are Useless: Played with. Unsurprisingly, Herr Strauss and the other cops don't take Martin's outlandish claims very seriously, but they do try their best to verify his side of the story (phoning Professor Cole, checking CCTV, checking immigration records and so on), and there isn't much they can do when everything they try to verify has been blocked off by the bad guys. Later on, they do take Martin's claims of a bomb in the hotel seriously, and evacuate the hotel as soon as they see the CCTV footage from earlier months showing Martin had scouted out the locaiton and planted the bomb in advance
  • Pre-Asskicking One-Liner: "I didn't forget everything! I remember how to kill you, asshole!"
  • Properly Paranoid: Prof. Bressler is taking his laptop to one of the conference receptions. When he has to leave it at the wardrobe, he is feeling quite uneasy about this, bearing to let it hang there unattended only for a few minutes. What he doesn't suspect though is that the important data on it gets stolen via advanced spy technology rather than outright physical theft.
    • Herr Jürgen keeps a small packet of cyanide in powder form in a tin at the back of his kitchen cabinet, clearly an unused relic from his Stasi days. He obviously still felt he may need it some day, and is proven right when the villains come for him. He mixes it in with his cup of coffee.
  • Pursued Protagonist: The film is almost a Genre Throwback to the action-thrillers of the 80s-90s that featured Harrison Ford running away from his pursuers, such as The Fugitive.
  • Race Against the Clock: The bundle of plastic explosives planted in the hotel suite to kill Professor Bressler has a digital readout attached, even though it is planted inside the wall where it can't be seen. Elizabeth tries to disarm the bomb, and it looks like she might do it, but is a couple of seconds late as it explodes and kills her, atomizing her and taking out a large chunk of the Adlon Hotel.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Herr Strauss, and some of the senior cops. They give Martin every chance to prove that he "is" Martin, check the CCTV, check immigration records, check his university website. They even agree not to arrest him, assuming that his behaviour is just stemming from the head trauma.
  • Rewatch Bonus: Right at the very beginning, once done with the passport control, Liz jokingly asks Martin about the answer he gave to the guard's question regarding their reason for being in Berlin. That is your first and pretty much the only clue you are ever given in the pre-accident part of the movie that both of them are not being sincere about their intentions.
  • Revealing Cover-Up: The plan of the bad guys would have gone a lot smoother if they hadn't been so intent on killing Harris. At one point, Harris is even ready to give up, convinced he must be crazy... then the assassins try to kill him and confirm all his suspicions.
  • Right Through the Wall: At Gina's place, we hear noisy sex from the next room which leads to an awkward moment between Martin and Gina.
  • Ripped from the Phone Book: Harris does this at one point.
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Nurse Gretchen.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Jürgen.
  • Shoe Phone: The USB stick attached to Liz's wristband.
  • Shower of Love: Under MRI, Martin has foggy flashbacks of making love to his wife Liz in the shower.
  • Sickbed Slaying: The assassin trying to kill Martin with a poisonous infusion when he comes out of MRI.
  • Significant Sketchbook: Gina has one.
  • Slashed Throat: The other Martin gets killed this way.
  • Slow-Motion Fall: Of Martin in the taxi cab going off the bridge and into the water.
  • Smug Snake: Martin B and arguably also Liz who doesn't do much sneering but is definitely overconfident.
  • Sorting Algorithm of Deadness: The henchman snaps the neck of the nurse, but doesn't bother to finish off his intended target. Of course, the lethal injection plan fails and the hero gets away.
  • Speak in Unison: The two Martin Harrises find themselves in a Spot the Imposter situation, start to reiterate private information about Martin Harris, and end up doing so in unison. In the end it makes perfect sense: Both of them are fakes and have rehearsed all the personal facts about Martin Harris in exactly the same way.
  • Spot the Imposter: Professor Bressler finds himself in this situation when facing Neeson's character and his doppelganger together at the lab. He chooses to believe the other Martin who is able to produce a drivers license.
  • Strapped to an Operating Table: The assassin ties Martin to a stretcher at the hospital in order to kill him with an injection.
  • That Man Is Dead: Learning that he's a terrorist mercenary for hire who'll kill — and has killed — innocents, "Martin" no longer cares what his actual name and identity was, as the man he was is gone, and after eliminating the rest of the killers, declares he'll never be that man any longer.
  • Time Bomb: With a 5 minutes countdown.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: After awaking from his coma, people around Martin don't remember him anymore and he starts questioning his sanity.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Liz. Having her face linked to the explosion and destroying her cover might have been bad for her but presumably not as bad as being blown up.
  • Train Escape: Martin notices that he is being followed but manages to escape his pursuer by boarding a car at the subway right before the doors close up.
  • Trapped in a Sinking Car: Due to a freak accident in Berlin traffic, Martin's taxi goes off a bridge and into the river Spree. He hits his head on the window and goes unconscious as the car sinks deeper and deeper into the water. Gladly, his taxi driver is a Bad Ass Bystander and manages to free herself and then pull Martin out through the cab's rear window.
  • Villain Ball: The bad guys replaced their missing comrade a day or two after he disappeared, made no attempt to help him, and began killing everyone around him. They probably would have succeeded if they had made some effort to find him after he disappeared, or even stuck with their plan, backup included, and simply ignored Martin.
  • Villain Respect: Rodney Cole to Herr Jürgen. After realising his cover is blown, Cole remains civil and respectful when requesting to know everything Jürgen did on Martin's behalf, whilst also acknowledging that he can't let the old man live. Jürgen chooses to take his own life via poison rather than betray Martin or any of his old spy contacts, and after keeling over, Cole catches him and places him gently in a chair, acknowledging that Jürgen is "one of the best" for his sacrifice.
  • The Voiceless: Jones, the hitman that gets Car Fu'd by Gina, doesn't have a speaking part.
  • Waking Up Elsewhere: Martin wakes up at the hospital after been Asleep for Days. The ambient sounds are muffled at first and the camera mimics his eyes slowly opening and adjusting to the brightness of the room.
  • Wham Episode: Several twist moments, the first of which being Liz denying ever knowing Martin, and things continue to go "wham!" from there.
  • Wham Line: "There is no Martin Harris. He doesn't exist."
  • Worthy Opponent: Jürgen for Cole.
  • Why Don't Ya Just Shoot Him?: Presumably due to Complexity Addiction. Instead of killing Martin instantly at the hospital, the assassin takes his time with him and starts to inject a slow-dripping poison, which buys Martin enough time to escape.
    • Arguably averted. The villains want to make Martin seem crazy in the eyes of the police, and so (as Cole says in the carpark before trying to make Martin overdose) want his death to look accidental. There's always the risk if they just shoot him that the police may become suspicious as to why Martin was murdered shortly after telling such an incredible and unlikely story, and investigate further.

"What matters is what you do now, Martin."