|Martin Laudau and Christopher Plummer in Remember.|
He may be one of Canada’s best known directors but Atom Egoyan’s film oeuvre is more than a little underwhelming. Except for the fascinating screenplay for his debut feature, Next of Kin (1984), about a young man posing as another couple’s child, who they gave up for adoption; the last half hour of Exotica (1994), which revolves around the murder of a young child and builds to a strong emotional climax and some powerful scenes in the murder mystery Where the Truth Lies (2005), Egoyan’s movies, including Speaking Parts (1989), The Adjuster (1991), The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Felicia’s Journey (1999), Ararat (2002) and Chloe (2009) tend towards the arid, intellectually obtuse and singularly uninteresting. He’s generally not a stupid filmmaker but he is tone deaf to how people actually speak and live. His fifteenth feature, Remember, which will open in the United States in February, is one of a handful of his films not written by him (it’s credited to Benjamin August, a producer and casting director), but it’s of a piece with his usual mediocre output, albeit with an added dose of ridiculousness thrown into the mix.
It begins with Zev Gutman (Christopher Plummer), an elderly resident of a nursing home, waking from a troubled sleep and plaintively calling out for his wife Ruth, who has just recently passed away. It turns out Zev, a Holocaust survivor, has slipped into dementia and does not always have clear memories of the circumstances of his life and existence. That does not stop his fellow Auschwitz survivor, Max Rosenbaum (Martin Laudau), from pushing Zev to leave the senior’s home to go hunt down the Nazi war criminal who was responsible for the deaths of their families. The only clue to his identity is the false name Rudy Kurlander, which he assumed when he emigrated to the U.S., but it also turns out that there are four such Kurlanders, one living in Canada, who might be the man they are searching for. Zev’s mission (which he accepts) is to escape from the home, which he does, and following Max’s carefully written out instructions, get his hands on a gun and go hunting for Kurlander. Remember is all about what happens when Zev heads out on the road to enact vengeance.
Despite its Holocaust theme, Remember isn’t really about that tragedy – it could have been any form of vengeance set out for any reason - nor does it possess any real poignancy. Egoyan is too cerebral for that. (Ararat, which was about Egoyan’s own personal painful history, that of the 1915 Armenian genocide, also didn’t register emotionally so why would this movie, which he is not personally connected to, do otherwise?) As for its main plot point, the dementia which impacts and affects Gutman’s actions, well it’s problematic on many levels. I have personally seen how dementia plays out and while Remember is accurate enough in depicting it, it’s also too convenient by half. How can Max know that Zev will be able to escape their residence, not get picked up by the police or the authorities after he is reported missing and, most significantly not forget, when in the throes of his brain disease, to refer to the letter tucked away in his inside jacket pocket? For that matter, how can Max be sure Zev won’t lose the letter entirely? Had the movie posited Zev’s mission as a last minute act of desperation by Max, who is wheelchair ridden and unable to breathe without an oxygen mask, it might have been more plausible. But not surprisingly, Egoyan fails to impart that urgent tone into the film and thus lets the movie unfold in a dull, routine, even lackadaisical at times, manner. He’s entirely incapable of turning Remember into a half decent thriller, which might have allowed the movie to jump over its far-fetched aspects by so enfolding the viewer into such a fast paced story that he or she would only contemplate its flaws afterwards.
That left me not buying into this movie for a second and groaning with exasperation as it continued on with Zev somehow, incredibly, managing to track the Kurlanders down one by one as he nears his ultimate goal. Plummer does what he can with the part. He’s fine but it’s still a pretty thin role – we never even find out what Zev did for a living though he may have been a piano teacher. Landau’s part is utterly thankless – Max , who was involved with the Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s hunt for Nazis, hence his knowledge of Kurlander ‘s presence, mostly functions as a plot device to answer the phone and urge Zev ever onwards. Henry Czerny (Revenge) as Zev’s concerned son has even less to do on screen.
Filmed in Ontario, adequately, at best, substituting for most of its U.S locations, like Cleveland, Ohio, Remember has the occasional smart conceit, such as the idea that the people Zev encounters would never perceive the old man as a threat to anyone. And there’s one clever, suspenseful scene concerning the ubiquitousness of guns in the States that only a Canadian like Egoyan would even think of remarking upon. But even if I wanted to give Remember the benefit of the doubt, its final ‘revelation’ would have kiboshed that. Without spoiling it, let’s just say the film’s conclusion is utterly idiotic and completely nonsensical. (This ain’t The Usual Suspects, folks! Not by a long shot.) Its use of Zev’s dementia comes utterly a cropper at the end. (It also contains an idea that is not nearly as original as Egoyan and company seem to think.) No doubt, some will posit that Remember fits nicely in with Egoyan’s traditional concerns about identity, memory and secrets but that’s a stretch since the film is, finally, so implausible and unbelievable. Even by Egoyan’s low cinematic standards, such as the risible Chloe or Adoration (2008), the eminently forgettable Remember is scraping the bottom of the creative barrel.
– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he has just concluded a course on documentary cinema.