There’s an old adage which states that most movies are “made in the edit.” While not a wholly factual statement, there’s a lot of truth to it. Footage without a strong edit is a sentence without punctuation. The material exists, and is often compelling, but without the right cuts, the right arrangement, the right punctuation, it can lack the rhythm required to draw the viewer into its story. It’s a dance between two incredibly difficult arts — a symbiosis that, when executed properly, can create something transcendent. We are lucky when a director and editor work in tandem, but there are plenty of examples where they do not. We cinephiles read of filmmakers failing to receive final cut, and ultimately disowning the completed work for being too far from their vision for them to feel comfortable claiming credit.
In the case of The Unknowable, the director and editor are one and the same, but the people who shot the bulk of the footage are long forgotten (like, loooooong forgotten). It’s the rare case of a movie/series truly being made in the edit.
Presented as a series of bite-sized episodes, The Unknowable tells the tale of Thadeus Wilcox, who, spurred by a series of visions, moved his family to a remote plot of land in the Mojave Desert in 1948. Per the visions, it is Thadeus’ mission to build a device with the potential to open a portal to another world. But what Thadeus and family soon discover is that the visions he’s been experiencing go deeper than anyone could have imagined — enough to change the fabric of human history.
But here’s the catch: only a small amount of the footage we see was shot by writer/director Zachary Donohue (The Den). The bulk of the visual material consists of repurposed silent film footage from the ear;y 20th century. This footage is arranged and given narration, with the contemporarily-shot footage functioning as narrative glue. Somehow, against all cinematic logic, it creates a distinctly compelling plot in which all of the repurposed footage seems as if it were shot specifically to this end. It’s David Lynch by way of Ken Burns, with a pinch of Adam Curtis thrown in for good measure (and I was personally reminded of Muppet Babies, which frequently used old-timey footage for funsies).
The style is ultimately that of a documentary, with most of the visuals unspooling in a montage format. Watching The Unknowable in one fell swoop taps into a sort of podcast energy that I can only imagine is even stronger when broken down into episodic bits (which you can enjoy here). This allows for a ton of information to be dispensed at an insane clip, and for all of it to be easily absorbable. It’s hypnotic like that.
Most impressive is the complexity of the story itself. At just under 40 collective minutes, The Unknowable reaches a level of heady sci-fi and cosmic horror unmatched even by films that spend hours building their mythology. It’s a LOT, but the delivery mechanism is wildly efficient and never boring. Thoughtful musings are mixed mix with legitimately creepy plot developments, with moments of dry humor littered throughout. It’s pretty indescribable, and although it’s probably not for everyone, it’s about the strangest possible thing I’d be comfortable recommending to anyone. Even if the story doesn’t grab you, the sheer inventiveness of the project will surely spark your imagination.
The Unknowable, despite being made almost entirely of the old, feels like something brand spanking new.
Check out the trailer here.
Directed by Zach Donohue
Written by Zach Donohue
Starring Sean Burgos, Chris Voss, Ally Voss, Sarah Eisenberg, Kevin Swanstrom
Presented by Jackalope Studio
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