Unforgettable

Director John Dahl began his career with a series of increasingly impressive neo-noir flicks: the serviceable Kill Me Again, the exceptional Red Rock West and the superb The Last Seduction. Each of these movies found the director sharpening his abilities as a storyteller and fine-tuning his directorial technique. By the time The Last Seduction was released, he had established himself as a filmmaker boasting talent to match that of his assorted inspirations. Dahl's next film, Unforgettable, was supposed to be the movie that made him a Hollywood power player: he had access to his first respectable budget, and a script that offered an intriguing fusion of noirish crime drama and science fiction. Unfortunately, the film struggled to live up to its title, and flopped hard at the box office.

The film centers on Dr. David Crane (Ray Liotta, Cop Land), a forensic scientist who works for the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office. A few years ago, David was charged with murdering his wife, but a piece of mishandled evidence caused the case to be thrown out of court. Many people – including some of David's own colleagues – still believe that David is a murderer, but David is eager to definitively prove his innocence. Meanwhile, he's tasked with investigating a gruesome quadruple homicide that took place at a local convenience store, and is struggling to find any evidence that might lead him to the killer.

One night, David attends a charity dinner of sorts and is treated to a lecture from Dr. Martha Briggs (Linda Fiorentino, Dogma), a neuroscientist who has discovered a way to transfer memories from one lab rat to another. The audience in attendance seems bored by Martha's speech, but David is fascinated: gaining access to the memories of a murder victim could be incredibly useful, and might even help him solve the mystery of his wife's murder. He meets with Martha, who patiently explains that she's years away from human trials and there are all sorts of potentially deadly side effects. David hastily dismisses Martha's concerns and volunteers to become Martha's first human lab rat. When she declines, he simply steals the experimental drug from her lab, mixes it with some brain fluid from one of the quadruple homicide victims and gives himself an injection. It works... but there are indeed side effects. David may indeed be able to use the injections to solve the mystery, but only if he doesn't kill himself first (each injection increases the chance that he'll suffer a heart attack).

Dahl makes a curious directorial choice in the way he opts to present the “memories” that David experiences. Rather than giving us imagery through someone else's eyes, he gives us stylish bits of melodramatically-framed drama that feel even more blatantly cinematic and artificial than everything else in the movie. Christopher Young's Herrmannesque score – fluttering strings and ominous bells – transforms into a chaotic orchestral thunderstorm, the camera starts serving up all sorts of crazy tilted angles, striking filters get thrown into the mix and Dahl even tinkers with the aspect ratio on occasion, making characters look unusually chunky or thin. Liotta excuses this with a single bit of dialogue: “It's not a memory, it's an experience.” Okay, then.

This is a mad scientist movie, and like most of those movies, it begins with a mere spark of madness and works its way to feverish insanity. Unfortunately, it gets there entirely too quickly. Do you remember the last stretch of Goodfellas, where a coked-out, desperate Liotta so frantically attempts to cope with the fact that the authorities are closing in on him? Liotta reaches that point by the second act of this movie, which leaves him with nowhere else to go for the next hour or so. The film's first hour is goofy fun, but then it just starts repeating itself and using the same tricks over and over. The fact that the villain's true identity becomes obvious pretty early in the proceedings only adds to the monotony of these scenes, making us fidget impatiently as we wait for the characters to figure out things we already know.

There's a good deal of Altered States in the film's DNA – a combination of junk science and raw energy that join forces in the film's most memorable scenes – but this film has a considerably less diverse set of ideas and considerably less commitment to just diving off the deep end. The scenes of preposterous sensationalism (such as a chase sequence that crescendos with a murderer holding a switchblade to the throat of a young child) don't really sit too well with the scenes of more grounded human drama (such as the numerous sequences in which Liotta mopes about not getting to spend more time with his two children). There are traces of inspired lunacy – one person's memories collide with another person's memories and send poor David into a mental tailspin – but it's never consistently bonkers enough nor genuinely thoughtful enough to work.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the way the film chooses to use Fiorentino. She delivered the definitive performance of her career in Dahl's The Last Seduction, playing one of cinema's most memorably vicious femme fatales. In Unforgettable, she takes an 180-degree turn, playing a character who spends half of her screen time mumbling her way through pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo and the other half fretfully sobbing lines like, “David! David! Be careful!” She does all of this well, of course, but for those who know how good she can be, it's an undeniable disappointment. The same applies to Dahl and this movie.


Unforgettable

Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Year: 1996