Unknown opens with a series of slow tracking shots that minutely explore a dilapidated warehouse. In a way, that understated opening-credit sequence is the best part of the film; it implies a pregnant moment full of ominous possibilities, and a loving sense of detail that the rest of the film lacks. Ultimately, the camera finds several unconscious people, sprawled out among a series of telling items—a smashed cell phone, a bloody shovel. But as soon as those people come to, the movie starts heading downhill.
Unknown boasts an irresistible premise: Five men wake up locked in a warehouse. One (Joe Pantoliano, at his bitchiest) is tied to a chair; another (Jeremy Sisto) is handcuffed to a railing; a third (Greg Kinnear) has a broken nose. And none of them remember who they are or why they're there. It's a locked-door mystery with everyone still locked on the wrong side of the door. But the clumsy script quickly turns the mystery into a tedious checklist of events: The men snarl at each other and make paranoid accusations. They explore their space. They find clues. They snarl some more. One by one, they each look into a grimy bathroom mirror and experience blurry flashbacks that jar their recall just enough to get the shouting going again. (Some even successfully visit the flashback-mirror twice, which raises the question of why they don't all just line up and stare at their hollow-eyed reflections until everything becomes clear.) It's all as rickety-tickety as an early puzzle video game, with the rote spaces between revelations filled in with a lot of repetitive dialogue and heavy-handed music cues.
Simon Brand's debut feature aspires to land somewhere between Saw (sans gore) and The Usual Suspects (sans criminal bonhomie and whipcrack dialogue), but it comes across more like an amateur stage play, mechanically working through the obligatory three acts toward the obligatory twist ending. The action periodically moves outside, where grim cop Peter Stormare closes in on the mystery from his own angle, but these excursions deflate the tension more than they heighten it. Like conspiracy movies, mysteries often unravel as they progress, turning the mystifying mundane. Unknown manages a hat trick by making its march toward the climax so tedious and unlikely that it unravels even as it gets off the ground.