In an ideal world, Remember, the latest from one-time arthouse wunderkind director Atom Egoyan, would have been a ‘70s B-movie picture, a sloppy, pulpy thrill-ride that you feel a little ashamed for having seen but nonetheless feel a visceral thrill for having experienced.
The story is about Zev Guttman (Christopher Plummer), an elderly Holocaust survivor stricken with grief from both the recent death of his wife and from memory loss that causes him to be constantly reminded of that. Before his dementia set in, he swore that once his wife died, he would take a journey across the country to find and kill the block commander, the lead guard of the Nazi camp, who killed his family.
Zev is reminded of this journey and then set on it by another elderly Holocaust survivor in his nursing home, the wheelchair-bound Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau). All he has to keep him on the path is a letter that reminds him of his task and the name Rudy Kurlander, the name that the block commander took to hide in America.
This is a plot that definitely leans heavily on some very touchy and hefty ideas. In a more delicate film, there could have been some interesting or beautiful explorations of memory and loss, perhaps in the earlier hands of Egoyan, in the era when he directed the deeply affecting The Sweet Hereafter.
Or in the hands of a less delicate film, one that pitched so far to the rafters, the exploitation of dementia and Holocaust survivors could take a weird revenge-based poignancy, something like Inglourious Basterds. Something that becomes enjoyable through sheer audacity.
But, for more than a few reasons, Remember never truly becomes either of those things, and instead, wanders in a wasteland between being poignant and intelligent and being so depraved as to be a spectacle. It winds up as a film that is utterly forgettable, ironically enough.
Obviously, much blame rests at the feet of screenwriter Benjamin August for leading the film through this wasteland. It’s a world of contrivance and a few too many precocious children that seem to serve the purpose of explaining things one watching this film might be expected to know (“What’s a Natzee?” asks one young lass of Zev). Tension seems artificial and brought up without escalation; the same problem arises each time.
A few scenes, particularly one with Dean Norris (Breaking Bad) as the untrustworthy sheriff John Kurlander, lean this film toward becoming something of what it should be. Had at any point the script decided what it was going to be tonally or narratively, these scenes could have been the highlights of the film rather than the knife in the heart that reminded me I was sitting watching this instead of doing literally anything else.
But lest we dump too much on August, much of the film’s failure rests also at the feet of Egoyan and his direction. Remember is shot in largely flat, cheap-looking locations, subsequently resulting in largely flat, cheap-looking shots, with production design that is reminiscent of a particularly strong student film rather than of a director with 20 years of experience. There seems to be a sure and steady hand steering the story, but it’s steering it toward jagged rocks.
And sadly, even performances do not salvage this film. This rests largely on the fact that with no idea of what to say or any ability to say it, the actors are forced to throw their hands up and just act at the screen, hoping at some point to hit their mark. I understand the appeal for lead actor Plummer, a venerable veteran of the film world, in the chance to play something besides a grandpa. But to be frank, without a direction, even he can barely muster up more than an interminable shuffle and a few solid line readings, let alone can anyone else in the bizarre world around him.
The feeling of student film rests all over Remember. The audacious premise without the proper experience to work through it. The cobbled together and amateurish production work. The feeling that what works happened by accident and what didn’t happened by design. The feeling that someone thought at some point they were so damned clever.
All of this coalesces into making this professionally made film feel like every shitty short you’ve ever sat through at some campus film festival. One simply wonders how quickly this film was dashed off, how its pedigree led to something like this and how anyone at any point didn’t seem to care enough to give at least another once over.
A film is best evaluated on its individual merits. Each film has goals, and as a critic, I am to assess the goals and share (with personal insight) how best that film reaches those goals and what it says within them. Remember seems to hold two conflicting ones. It aspires toward arthouse thought, tales of sorrow, loss and memory, and toward grindhouse plotting, with its exploitative use of dementia, the Holocaust and an old man with a gun seeking to kill Nazis.
It ultimately ends up trying both approaches and undercutting each to achieve neither. Its grindhouse nature makes the tales of sorrow, loss and memory feel cheap and even offensive and its prestige nature takes any of the fun or thrill out of what could have been a pulpy and bizarre little film.
Remember is so much, but ultimately, it’s nothing.