Which either means writers are running out of new twists on the theme, at least for a contemporary drama, or the theme itself no longer can claim an immediate, attentive audience.
indeed the latter case may be in the forefront of the filmmakers’ minds as the story and even that title, “Remember,” scream out this is one subject that humanity might forget at its own peril.
Certainly holocausts are occurring around the globe even as I write these words so amnesia is a condition the world clearly suffers from.
But to return to the challenge of finding the right subject, tone and, if you will, delivery system for a dramatic reminder of the horrors of mass murder as a means of social engineering, this film from esteemed Canadian filmmaker, Atom Egoyan (“Ararat,” “The Sweet Hereafter”), chooses a risky one all the way through, one that many will find highly unsatisfying if not risible.
The key issue is the almost absurd handicap visited on the movie’s protagonist. First-time screenwriter Benjamin August follows the lead of Christopher Nolan’s electrifying film “Mememto,” where a sufferer of short-term memory loss looks for his wife’s murderer, and Mark Haddon’s remarkable novel, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,” where a 15-year autistic youth must solve a murder mystery.
For August’s hero is a nonagenarian Holocaust survivor suffering from dementia. Having the role of Zev Guttman played by Christopher Plummer, who is a mere 86 and no doubt delighted at the opportunity to play “older,” certainly helps solve some believability issues here.
But as Zev wanders North America by train and bus with only a long letter to guide him and needing systems to help him remember things, more than a few audience members may throw up their hands.
The gimmick — and it really is a gimmick — is this: Zev awakens in a New York assisted-living facility to the realization, which must come again to him each morning, that his longtime wife has recently died. On the last night of sitting shiva, his wheelchair-bound friend Max (Martin Landau), also 90, reminds him of a vow he apparently made a while back in more lucid moments.
Max hands him an envelop thick with hundred-dollar bills and a letter detailing how to fulfill his vow to track down one “Rudy Kurlander.” This is the assumed name a once-time SS block commander, who killed both their families at Auschwitz, is now living under in North America.
Trouble is there are four Rudy Kurlanders identified by the Simon Wiesenthal Center as possibly being the ex-Nazi. So the movie’s 90-year-old protagonist, lost in the fog of dementia, must travel great distances to discover what any beginning screenwriting student knows: the first three will not be the right Rudy Kurlander.
Of course, points are made and lessons perhaps learned in the other three encounters. Along with Max’s long letter and Zev’s desperate phone calls home to Max — strange that he can always remember Max’s number but not that his beloved wife has died — August deliberately places very young children along the way as guides and signposts.
These children are, of course, the ones who must do the remembering now that Holocaust survivors and perpetrators are passing from the scene. All of which makes for a fine and noble statement but in this instance very awkward drama.
Truth be told, your primary interest in this story is seeing just how Egoyan and August even try to pull off this fantastic conceit. How will Zev muddle through each day when he can barely remember his own name much less track down and shoot a fellow 90-year-old with his newly purchased Glock?
How will the false leads play out? Will his frantic family find the missing senior? More to the point, how is revenge delayed 70 years, and executed against someone who care barely remember the crime, any sort of justice?
The answers to these questions are not very satisfying. The final sequence with its absurd twist is too much of a screenwriting gimmick to withstand the withering criticism it will no doubt generate.
Here I must digress for a moment. The tyranny of the “spoiler” police on the Internet has adversely impacted film criticism so that key issues in a given movie cannot be disclosed much less discussed lest some aspect of the plot get revealed to those who haven’t seen the film.
This makes sense in many ways but it also serves to withhold scrutiny of movies’ fatal flaws until a delay of — what, until the DVD comes out or perhaps when Film Comment gets around to its belated reviews?
Bowing to this tyranny, I can only state the final scene of the final act is not only implausible, but takes the whole aspect of memory and forgetting to level of willful wish fulfillment.
En route to this head-banger the movie encounters a number of aging actors for scenes where longtime moviegoers can catch glimpses of old favorites. Along with Plummer and Landau, such stalwarts of European cinema in bygone days as Bruno Ganz, Jürgen Prochnow and Heinz Lieven appear as “Rudy Kurlanders.”
Meanwhile Dean Norris, best known as the relentless DEA agent in “Breaking Bad,” appears as the son of a deceased Rudy Kurlander in perhaps the movie’s one truly shocking sequence. The reliable Henry Czerny plays the thankless role of Zev’s frantic son.
The movie must rely in Plummer’s considerable skill at portraying the struggles and frustrations of an aging widower to make the movie work as well as it does.
“Remember” also glistens with work by top-drawer behind-the-camera personnel including cinematographer Paul Sarossy and makeup artist Adrien Morot, who makes the elderly look even more so.
Frankly, production values far outshine the mechanics of a plot that cannot break through the wall of believability.
Opens: March 18, 2016 (A24)
Cast: Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Bruno Ganz, Jürgen Prochnow, Heinz Lieven, Dean Norris, Henry Czerny
Production companies: Serendipity Point Films in association with Distant Horizon, Detalle, Egoli Tossell Films, Telefilm Canada
Director: Atom Egoyan
Screenwriter: Benjamin August
Producers: Robert Lantos, Ari Lantos
Executive producers: Mark Musselman, Anant Singh, Moises Cosio, Jeff Sagansky, D. Matt Geller, Lawrence Guterman, Michael Porter
Director of photography: Paul Sarossy
Production designer: Matthew Davies
Costume designer: Debra Hanson
Music: Mychael Danna
Editor: Christopher Donaldson
R rating, 95 minutes