Atom Egoyan’s new movie Remember — about an aging Holocaust survivor plotting revenge — is a moving and surprising feat of storytelling, and featuring a great performance
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau
Directed by: Atom Egoyan
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Running time: 95 minutes
By Jay Stone
Film director Atom Egoyan has gone, in a relatively short period of time, from the Golden Boy of Canadian cinema to its bête noire. The journey from The Sweet Hereafter (1997) to Where The Truth Lies (2005) or Devil’s Knot (2013) is brief in time but long in the number of stars the critics are awarding. Egoyan’s cool, distant movies were once hailed as the breakthrough of a brilliant auteur; today, he can count only on cool and distant dismissals.
It’s a kind of critical piling-on after several disappointments, and it’s the only reason I can discern for the negative reviews of Remember, a dark and entertaining thriller that comes with brilliant performances, a shock ending, and none of the auteurist accoutrements — the almost forced artificiality of Egoyan’s earlier work; his obsession with video — of his breakthrough movies.
Early in his career, Egoyan directed two episodes of the old Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series, and Remember is like an elevated version of that sensibility: a twisted tale of human perfidy, but told with a calm and mature eye of a filmmaker who has come around to the value of storytelling over style. Remember is the best thing he’s done in years.
It stars Christopher Plummer as Zev Guttman, a fragile old man who lives alone in a nursing home since the recent death of his wife, but still wakes up every morning calling to her. Zev has trouble remembering things, and he is forced to make lists or even write information on his hand, like the protagonist of Christopher Nolan’s Memento (a reference that seems to have irritated the critical community no end.)
There’s also something else written on Zev’s body: a serial number from Auschwitz tattooed on his arm. Zev is a Holocaust survivor, and he and his friend Max (Martin Landau) have cooked up a plot to take revenge, even though it’s 70 years late. Zev can’t recall the details — memory roils under the themes of Remember on both a personal and historical level — but Max is there to remind him.
Max is in a wheelchair, so Zev will have to go out into the world and settle the accounts for both them and for the families — for the millions — who were killed by the Nazis. Max has discovered an Auschwitz guard is now living incognito under the name Rudy Kurlander. There are four men of that name living in the U.S. and Canada, and Zev has promised Max that he will hit the road by bus and train, obtain a gun, track down the former Nazi and kill him, all in the name of justice and closure.
The problem is that he wakes up every day not knowing who he is, so he has to keep notes. He also relies on frequent phone calls from Max, back at the home.
Remember is thus a cross-country manhunt carried on by a courtly and vulnerable senior who nonetheless is able to walk into a gun shop and purchase a Glock — praised by the salesman as the best thing for whatever job Zev has in mind — and keep it in his shaving kit. He’s a confused assassin who awakens every morning with a sense of loss swimming in his eyes: Plummer’s portrayal of the slow onset of senility is both gentle and devastating, and the mystery of Remember comes partially in the drama of wondering whether he will arrive at his target while he is still lucid enough to do the job.
Whether the job should be done is another question, one that floats under the surface of Benjamin August’s screenplay. Egoyan — who has long been interested in the notion of truth, another of Remember’s themes — wisely lets it drift by, a small flutter in the sails of Max’s voyage.
The various Rudy Kurlanders whom Max meets are slightly less successful; some of the aging prosthetics are not believable. The highlight is a memorable encounter with the son of one of the Rudys, a policeman (Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris) who is the hinge for one of the movie’s reversals. Remember goes from a fable about an old feeble man on an impossible mission to a serious study of what revenge really means, filmed — like most of the movie — at a matter-of-fact distance that serves to heighten its surprises.
They abound, although the critics — including a group at the Venice film festival who hated Remember, and some at the Toronto festival who brushed it off as a trifle — have dismissed them as either predictable or silly. Personally, I was shocked and moved. Atom Egoyan has traded the cold analytics of his past for the warm emotion of pure drama. He’s back, although no one seems to know it.
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