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The Ending Of Unknown Explained

This article contains spoilers for "Unknown."

What if you were a highly trained assassin who developed amnesia, and as you began to recover your memories, you became morally opposed to your former life? That's the basic gist of the 2011 Liam Neeson thriller "Unknown." 

Neeson plays Martin Harris, a bioscientist married to another bioscientist, Liz (January Jones) — or so he thinks. While attending a conference in Berlin, Harris gets into a harrowing car accident and injures his head, which leaves him with little memory of his past life. When he returns to his wife, he finds another man named Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) who's taken his place.

What starts out as a mind-bending psychological thriller eventually evolves into an espionage story, as Harris slowly discovers the truth. It turns out that "Martin Harris," the bioscientist, was just his cover identity for his latest mission. "Martin" and "Liz" were sent to Berlin to assassinate a real scientist named Bressler (Sebastian Koch), who's developed a strain of genetically modified corn that can grow in any climate. It's a scientific breakthrough that would benefit all of humanity, except for the agricultural corporations that currently control the world's corn.

The new Martin doesn't want to kill Bressler, but it's almost too late. When he finally learns the truth, he also learns that he and Liz have already planted a bomb inside Bressler's hotel suite. The rest of the movie becomes a race against time to stop the assassination Martin no longer believes in, and he ultimately does.

However, "Unknown" is ultimately a movie about the limits of how much someone can change.

Martin's transformation wouldn't be possible without Gina the cab driver

Before we get to the ending itself, it's worth mapping out how Martin came to object to the assassination plot, and how it plays into his character development.

Right after his car accident, which left him drowning in the river Spree, Martin was rescued by a Bosnian refugee and cab driver named Gina (Diane Kruger). She's an innocent civilian, and they meet entirely by chance. Gina is kind to the confused amnesiac, and Martin is grateful. As a world-traveling assassin who (up to this point) has almost always interacted with the outside world through a cover identity, Martin isn't accustomed to the kindness of strangers. So, Gina's kindness starts to change him, before he even realizes that he is changing.

Soon, though, Gina is in danger. As Martin investigates his past, his former employers repeatedly try to kill him off to eliminate the loose end, and Gina gets caught in the crossfire. This causes Gina to change as well, forcing her to fight and kill for her survival. As Martin begins to learn who he is, he realizes that he's not only responsible for the Bressler plot, he's also partly responsible for everything that is now happening to Gina. In his past life, collateral damage was an acceptable cost of doing business. But to the new Martin, Gina must be saved.

The question then becomes, is it too late to do anything about it?

It's only a partial transformation

Over the final 20 minutes of the movie, Martin and Gina scramble to stop the assassination plot against Bressler. They're only partly successful. While they do save Bressler and his kids, they can't stop the bomb from blowing up the hotel — though it doesn't appear that anyone is hurt in the explosion.

After stopping the assassination, there's really only one thing left for Martin to do: recover Bressler's research. To do it, he comes face to face with his replacement, the impostor Martin, for a final showdown. This sequence essentially represents the battle between who Martin used to be and who he is currently. The newly enlightened Martin does ultimately defeat the impostor, but only after he recovers the last memories of who he used to be, including his hand-to-hand combat skills.

Martin brutally kills the impostor Martin, and by doing so, he finds the limits of how much he can change. He might be a new person, but he's still a brutal killer. Even worse, Gina witnesses this moment. She even momentarily fears that he'll hurt her next. When she sees the savagery Martin is capable of, it changes the way she sees him. Through Gina's eyes, Martin realizes that he can't just walk away from his past sins.

However, the movie still manages to finish on a somewhat hopeful final moment. After Bressler takes his research public, Martin and Gina get new identities that will allow them to have a fresh start — or, at least, as fresh a start as possible, given that Martin is an ex-assassin. Martin limps away from Berlin, literally damaged by the whole experience. He's doubtful whether he can leave his past behind, but he's still willing to try. And sometimes that's all we can do.