I first heard of Atom Egoyan in 2001 when someone insisted I see his The Sweet Hereafter (1997), which she was convinced was not only a masterpiece, but one of The Great Films. I saw it and thought it was … OK, but nothing I would watch a second time. (That this did not sit well with my friend is understating the case.) So, here I am, 15 years and three more Egoyan films later, staring down the barrel of my fifth excursion into his world with Remember. While I like the film more than most of the others, I’m still not “getting” Egoyan’s greatness. His world seems to mostly revolve around sin and guilt, with little, if any, hope for redemption. There’s a level of self-seriousness about it that appeals to some, but I am just plain not in tune with that.
I’m also not entirely in tune with Remember — and for much the same reason — but I have to say that its story is compelling in its very strangeness. I admire its pulpy (almost lurid) premise, and I certainly have no qualms about the acting. Christopher Plummer (an Egoyan almunus) is excellent in the lead, and Martin Landau offers terrific support in a role that’s ultimately a tough sell. Really, everyone in the film is hard to fault. But it’s Plummer’s show, and it’s due to him that the film works. Looked at as a whole — and after the fact — the more difficult it is to believe that it works at all. Think of it as Memento (2001), but with an 80-plus-year-old lead character suffering from dementia. (Rather than tattooed clues, he has a letter he rereads to get his bearings.) If this sounds improbable, you’re only part way there.
Plummer plays Zev Guttman, a nursing home resident who, upon the death of his wife, is given money and instructions by his sharper-witted (but physically incapacitated) old friend Max Rosenbaum (Landau), a self-styled Nazi hunter. This is all in the service of sending Zev on a mission to discover — and kill — which of three men going by the name of Rudy Kurlander is the Nazi guard at Auschwitz who tormented the two and murdered their families. Considering Zev’s age and mental state, this is clearly preposterous, but somehow it falls into place as a melodramatic thriller of the, well, trashy kind. The fact that the film seems completely oblivious to its ever-growing list of absurdities is actually in its favor, as long as the drama is onscreen.
What is perhaps most intriguing about the film — and, again, I lay a lot of this at the feet of Plummer — is that the individual scenes often work quite well as drama. (There’s a disconcerting scene where the obviously out-of-it Zev has no trouble legally purchasing a gun.) But the film’s most surprisingly effective scene involves Zev finding the son (Dean Norris) of one of the potential Rudy Kurlanders. Well, it’s not the right one, but it almost might as well be (you’ll understand if you see the film), and the film’s sudden shift into outright, overblown melodrama seems oddly believable in its very unexpectedness. What follows in its wake marks the point where the preposterous just topples over into the unbelievable, which is unfortunate. The ending itself still works, though, despite the fact that the final twist becomes pretty obvious faster than you can say, “Richard Wagner.” And it’s satisfying.
All in all, I enjoyed Remember. I was never less than entertained by it, and I was more than entertained by Plummer’s performance. I’d like to believe that this is the point in Egoyan’s career where he has embraced his inner Lee Daniels as a salesman of tantalizing trash, but I’m not really sold on that. Not yet. I’ll have to see what he does next, because my suspicion is that he’s taking Remember as much more important than I am. Rated R for a sequence of violence and language.
Playing at Fine Arts Theatre.