Director: Gregor Jordan
Cast: Carrie-Anne Moss, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Sheen, Stephen Root, Brandon Routh, Martin Donovan
Plot: A Muslim American (Sheen) plants three nuclear bombs across America and the government bring in a shady operative, H (Jackson) to find them.
Unthinkable starts briskly, picking up pace until it gets to its chilling finale. Opening with a nervous yet determined American Muslim recording a video message to broadcast across the News, we cut to CTU, namely Carrie-Anne Moss’s steely Special Agent, trying to figure out how valid his threats are. After a while of character building, including the enigmatic introduction to Samuel L. Jackson’s refugee who the higher authorities deem out-of-bounds to the investigation, Moss gets a call from the military. Twist: they already have the bomber in custody, trapped in an interrogation room. All the good guys have to do is make him talk to solve the case.
And this is what Unthinkable boils down to. A debate on the necessary use of torture in America’s darkest times. Samuel L. Jackson, it turns out, is a brutally efficient torture expert, who the States call in when they are desperate. Carrie-Anne Moss finds herself the helpless good cop in a routine against her will, with the painful disadvantage of the fact that her hands are clearly tied. She watches this prisoner mistreated to the highest regard and with a government itchy to find these bombs, trapped firmly on the side-lines for wanting to do the right thing. Jordan’s debate is a horrifically well-told one, mainly because it constantly changes the parameters of the argument. At first, the audience is manipulated to think that this is an anti-torture movie: this is not difficult to do, assuming the audience has a basic respect for human rights and gets squeamish at the painful barrage of trials the prisoner has to go through. Jackson’s character threatens to become the true monster of the movie, the actor falling back on his villainous side more often than his heroic one. The first half of this movie questions who the real monster is: the Muslim with a solid belief system or the scared Americans, resorting to brutality in the face of oblivion? But then Jordan’s script goes up a notch. As the deadline to the detonation gets worryingly close, torture suddenly, to both the characters and, more unexpectedly, us, feels a little more justified. There is a brilliant sense of paradox to the fact that torture clearly isn’t working here, but the more time runs out, the more the government falls back on it. It is treated like our ace in the hole, the method beyond our legal limits, and when it fails, it sends the US government into a panic frenzy. But then just as we begin to emphasise with the torturers and understand, if not, like what is happening, the torture jumps up a notch, throwing us back into the uneasy waters of realising the monsters we have become. There is always the matter of the country at stake to make the torturers stay on the verge of good guy, no matter how monstrous they end up becoming, but there is a real sense that their patriotism steals their soul scene by scene. The last half an hour of this film is cinematic brilliance, at the very least, in terms of story-telling as the point is hammered home with brutal honesty. The ending is uncomfortably vague, leaving a question mark over the question: was it all worth it? Perhaps one of the more chilling notes the movie leaves you with is the idea that we are happy with torture as long as we nominate a man willing to give up his humanity to perform it and we are allowed to either keep to ignorance or judge critically from the side-lines.
Miss the on-point debate on show here and you are left with a limited set-piece thriller however. Viewers not willing to dive into a discussion about the benefits and disadvantages of torture, might find this a limited attempt at squeezing a buzz out of a ticking time bomb story. This is where the performances come in. Carrie-Anne Moss, sadly, is asked to do a lot with little. Her job is to be us; the conscience whispering in the ears of the more villainous of the characters. It is a vital role and one that makes this movie a lot easier to bear, but it also lumps Moss with the least interesting part of the film. This is all about Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Sheen. Sheen, from the very first time you see him nervously stuttering in front of his video threat, is instantly captivating. He is the bad guy, without a shadow of a doubt, but it is a credit to the performance that he stays likeable no matter what. Even threatening the lives of millions of people, you cannot escape the notion that Sheen’s character is just a nice guy. Effortlessly polite even when getting his fingernails removed and devoted to his ideals, it makes the torture debate so much more uncomfortable. Sheen makes us forget that his character is responsible for the bombs and helps the audience see a weak, defenceless man being butchered by a scared American government. I would take Sheen’s unconventional approach to the bad guy over any Hollywood pantomime actor any day of the week. However, as the movie hits its final note, it proves to be Samuel L. Jackson’s show. This is a must for any fan of the actor, tired of seeing him play it safe with the likes of Nick Fury or Snakes on a Plane. We are trained early on to see Samuel L. Jackson as the true evil of the movie. He chills with his calm rationalisation of the nightmares he inflicts on Sheen’s Muslim and anyone not disturbed by him breaking the torture for a quick family picnic. However, as the movie builds up, we see the fractured stress behind the eyes. Is he a sadist torture or a man willing to do anything to protect his country? Does he even agree with what he is doing himself? Does he see himself as the one man who must dirty his soul to protect the nation? Again Jordan gives him the dream screen-play that sees our opinion of the character change throughout the course of the story, until we are never sure whether he is the hero, the villain or the victim of the movie. By the end of the film, ambiguous ending be damned, we are left scratching our heads and genuinely mind-blown at what we have just seen.
Final Verdict: A powerhouse movie that not only questions the ethics of the government, but also your own.