Gregor Jordan | 93 mins | TV (HD) | 18 / R
Star Wars’ Samuel L. Jackson, The Twilight Saga’s Michael Sheen and The Matrix’s Carrie-Anne Moss star in this low-key thriller from the director of Buffalo Soldiers, Ned Kelly and The Informers. Sheen plays an American Muslim who alleges he has planted bombs around the country; after he is captured, Moss’ FBI team are brought in to locate the bombs; Jackson is a black-ops interrogator brought in to get the truth out of Sheen — by any means necessary. Including — or, perhaps, especially — illegal ones.
I say it’s a “low-key thriller” because, though the stakes are high, the vast majority of the action takes place in a deserted high school commandeered as a temporary military base, where Moss’ team work out of re-appropriated classrooms and Jackson conducts his interrogation in a sort of one-way-glassed torture tank placed in the gym. So there’s no 24-style thrills as people rush around the city/country hunting out bombs — Unthinkable is wholly reliant on the script and performances to draw us into its story, and its debate.
The debate in question is torture, and whether it’s excusable, and under what circumstances, and how far it’s OK to go. Though it’s grafted on to a story, it’s pretty clear that screenwriters Oren Moverman and Peter Woodward are as much, if not more, concerned with the issues at play than with the story they’re telling; the story, rather, is a decently dramatic way of drawing out and considering these issues. In my opinion, it works; at least, works well enough.
For some reason, Rotten Tomatoes only cites two professional reviews for Unthinkable (don’t know why, I know there are more — one’s quoted on the US DVD cover for starters), but the chosen pullquotes seem to sum up the opposing reactions I’ve spotted elsewhere, and indeed the opposing reactions a film such as this is predisposed to provoke. On one hand, one might find it “an entertaining and thought-provoking drama,” as does David Nusair of Reel Film Reviews; on the other, one might consider it “a clumsy polemic that bounces between the boundaries of stage-play debate and torture porn spectacle as everyone argues over ethics,” as does Sean Axmaker of Seanax.com. I’m far more inclined to agree with the former, and now intend to take Mr Axmaker’s four contentions one at a time as a handy way of shaping some more of my thoughts.
a clumsy polemic
As I’ve already insinuated, Unthinkable isn’t particularly subtle in its foregrounding of the torture debate. The thing is, a polemic requires it to be an “attack on someone or something”, which I don’t think Unthinkable is — I think it argues both for and against torture. Perhaps if the viewer is firmly entrenched in one viewpoint then the film will seem to support it to a polemical level; or perhaps they’d read it the other way, and see it as a polemic against their viewpoint. I don’t know which, though, because I don’t think it comes down hard on either side.
I think such criticism also does it a disservice; or does the theatre disservice, because it seems implicit in this comment that something limited in the way a stageplay would be can only be simplistic and unworthy. Unthinkable takes place in a limited number of locations, true, but not so limited that it feels forced. Nor is it so flatly directed as to feel like a filmed play, nor are the performances theatrical in the negative sense.
torture porn spectacle
This is just rubbish. “Torture porn” has become an overused phrase; something readily grabbed to bash a film with. I’m not saying the sub-genre doesn’t exist, and I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but Unthinkable is not a torture porn film. Yes, it contains torture, and some of it is shown in some degree of detail, but it does not depict it as brutally as it could, and it does not revel in it. This isn’t torture for the audience’s enjoyment, this is torture as a point for debate — “is it allowable to do this to another human being to get results?”, etc. Which brings us to:
everyone argues over ethics
And? As I said, Unthinkable doesn’t try to hide that it’s a debate on torture, but nor does it use it in place of a plot. This isn’t an essay pretending to be a film.
There are, apparently, two cuts of Unthinkable. I watched it on Sky Movies and they showed the extended version, which is also the one on DVD/BD (or maybe they both are), which I can only imagine is the director’s preferred version. The only difference is an extended ending. Why a shorter one even exists is baffling, because that final shot is essential. There are films where an ambiguous ending fits — I’ll happily line up to argue in their favour should such a line be necessary (first example that randomly pops into my head: In Bruges) — but it wouldn’t work here, in my opinion, and so the final shot becomes a necessary tie-off. It’s much more important than simply answering a lingering question — it unequivocally presents the ultimate outcome of the characters’ actions. Like the rest of the film, it doesn’t seek to tell you whether this is right or wrong, but shows you where such decisions lead. Moralising is left up to the viewer. (Apologies if this is vague, but I don’t want to spoil it.)
Unthinkable has been largely missed as a direct-to-DVD effort, despite its moderately high-profile cast and relevant themes. It’s an effective thriller based around a debate that is perhaps simplistic, but also thought-provoking. It’s easy to dismiss torture in the abstract, but there are endless “what if”s and “how far”s that can change things. But should they? And so on…