A strong, unusual and ultimately somewhat demented drama-thriller from Academy Award nominee Atom Egoyan, REMEMBER featuring a note-perfect Christopher Plummer (Academy-Award winner) as an octogenarian Jew with dementia who abruptly leaves a convalescent home after his wife dies. It isn’t a random act, but a response to a request of an incapacitated fellow resident (Martin Landau, also an Academy-Award winner) who sends him out in search of the Nazi who killed their families at Auschwitz.
It is a curious, inspiring aspect of the Video On Demand generation that while Hollywood is busy making bloated action remakes and sequels, these under-the-radar releases allow movie stars to continue having leads after the studio-system-proper has little use for them other than to add momentary class to a HUNGER GAMES or DIVERGENT sequel. Plummer, at 86, and Landau, at 87, are undoubtedly showing their age, using the dissolution settling in their bones for great dramatic effect; their performances are razor-sharp, even as life is dealing them the inevitable cruel blows that we all ultimately face. Egoyan is by and large a sensitive director not predisposed to the obvious, and his work in the last few years has gone largely unnoticed as it has traveled the Video-On-Demand/ limited-theatrical-release route. REMEMBER has a strong premise dealing with memory, anger, physical and mental corrosion, and whether there is any expiration date to revenge.
It is a thorny film that might evoke assorted feelings; as more and more of the generation that dealt firsthand with the Nazi genocide and survived now naturally perish, a film detailing an effort to exact revenge at the end of life is both compelling and potentially distasteful.
Plummer, resorting to MEMENTO-like tricks of writing important information down on his arm and hand to battle his invading dementia, is the main reason to stick with REMEMBER. Even in a hardly optimistic role involving deteriorating mental faculties, there is inspiration in seeing a master showing that whatever limitations age has put on him, he still commands the screen. He’s not the only one, as Landau and Bruno Ganz, as a surviving Nazi who lives in a Cleveland basement watching television in a track suit, also give performances disinclined towards cheap dramatic tricks..
Landau’s character, unable to move, deploying Plummer for a task so risky days after his wife has passed, is a fascinating creation. Exploiting a fellow Jew for what is likely a “suicide” mission of a sort when his friend is unable to consistently be in control of his thought or emotion is certainly a dramatically potent creation. On the other hand, as a Jew, Plummer, with full faculties, might gladly use his final days in vengeance towards those who exterminated his family 70 years earlier. Egoyan uses these tensions for great dramatic effect at times, and when Plummer pulls a gun on an infirm man only to find he was a fellow prisoner in Auschwitz, it is easy to question the morality of this quest. It is moments like this that work best in REMEMBER. In attempting to find the “blockfuhrer” responsible for the murder of his family, Plummer finding another man with the same name who just happened to be an Auschwitz prisoner, seems a decidedly implausible dramatic contrivance. But the acting is so strong and true-to-life, no doubt under delicate direction by Egoyan, that sequence after sequence works. After nearly killing this man, a short scene where Plummer plays Mendelssohn on a nursing home piano is emotional and beautiful. In some ways the film reminds me of Roman Polanski’s work; while less dryly, darkly humorous than Polanski, Egoyan’s sense of irony and offbeat detail (the irritation of a Canadian border guard with Plummer makes him feel like one of the many impatient bureaucrats found throughout Polanski’s work) works well with such challenging material.
REMEMBER is an absorbing movie because you become uneasy wondering which direction is the film going to go in. Dementia, Nazis, Revenge at 90 – the film has many elements that could derail it and send it into camp, but Egoyan keeps it going to nearly the very end.
But, oh, the ending. Wow.
THE SIXTH SENSE has a lot to answer for. Since the entirety of M. Night Shyamalan’s film’s success was a result of masterful audience manipulation leading to a startling ending that destabilized all that came before, 75% of filmmakers apparently feel their job is to mislead the audience. REMEMBER is a rich, character-driven story that, if done properly, should lead the viewer to a climax and resolution that may prove unforeseen and ironic, but also somewhat inevitable. Instead, there is a quite wrongheaded climactic reveal lacking in any kind of logic that subverts all of what came before, especially the hard-earned pathos of Plummer’s performance. Superb earlier sequences make little-to-no-sense in light of this melodramatic readjustment of the characters’ goals and personalities. In his THE SWEET HEREAFTER, for which he received his Oscar nomination, Egoyan left to the very end key info that allowed deeper comprehension of the characters and their troubles, and did so masterfully. Here, the final minutes feel like cut-rate carnival manipulation, and the scene is poorly staged to boot, with Plummer’s son (Henry Czarny) and the relatives of the Nazi he has tracked down standing dumbly as much bewildering action unfolds before them. I’d like to think at some level Egoyan had trouble staging this material because he had no faith in it – if he had faith in it, it doesn’t say much for faith. Polanski would have recognized all the ironies and depth of the base material and would have never attempted this flabbergasting resolution.
So where does this leave us? It leaves us with masterful work from Plummer and Landau, several tense, controlled sequences where Plummer confronts possible Nazis, and a final five minutes so foolish that it pretty much sinks what came before. A surprise revelation that deepens empathy for characters, such as in SIXTH SENSE and THE SWEET HEREAFTER is an enriching, powerful storytelling tool. Contemptuous surprise endings, such as found here, in James Mangold’s IDENTITY and Roger Donaldson’s otherwise superb modern noir NO WAY OUT devalue the dramatic experience and can make a viewer feel a fool for investing emotion and time in plot and character the filmmakers piss on for a final dramatic “shock.” Movies, when they work, are a much more profound, multifaceted experience than a simple magic trick, and when filmmakers turn it into one, it is exasperating and discouraging. For 85 minutes, Egoyan creates a world, with humor and tragedy, life and death, irony and suspense. Then, seemingly, we find at REMEMBER’s end that his goal wasn’t any of that, but to simply surprise us with an ugly rabbit. I was surprised, all right.