If there’s a reason, aside from the obvious physical ones, that we haven’t had too many oldster revenge thrillers, perhaps it’s that revenge as a concept seems one that age, experience, and accruing wisdom might reconsider. After all, living well is the best revenge, if not exactly the most cinematic. But the irresistible premise of Atom Egoyan‘s “Remember,” in which Christopher Plummer plays Zev, a German Jew pushing 90, who embarks on a hunt for the Auschwitz Block Commander responsible for the murder of his family during the Holocaust, justifies the shelving of this concern with what should be a compelling and moving further twist: Zev is not only frail in body, he is frail in mind and memory. So whatever it was that kept him from taking action before now is no longer an issue: his senile dementia has caused him to forget it. The pathos of this situation is clear, the stakes, which obviously involve genocide, justice, and actual Nazis, are sky high, and Plummer is extraordinary. So why on earth isn’t “Remember” a better film?
Maybe it’s because it’s really two films, one of which is the evocative story of Zev’s dissolving mind, degenerating body, and despairing heart, within which you can file every wordless moment of Plummer’s, every gesture, and every utterly human, relatable reaction. During each of his close ups, and whenever he’s alone on screen, at the piano or waiting on a porch or talking to a stranger’s child or struggling into confused wakefulness, this is the film we’re watching, and it’s little short of amazing. In these moments it’s a sort of “Mr Holmes“-esque evocation of the pitilessness of time, the frustration at one’s own failing faculties, and the deep horror that is waking up each day to live through grief all over again. In Zev’s case that grief is twofold — he has suffered the recent loss of his beloved wife, but also needs to be reminded what the tattooed number on his arm means. In fact the loss of memory of a survivor of the Holocaust, with its invocation to “Never Forget” is so resonant and provocative, and so filled with paradoxes and tragic ironies, that it most certainly deserves its own film.
But there’s hardly room for that film in “Remember,” which is much more concerned with being a standard, and fairly schlocky, revenge thriller. Its storyline defined by contrivances and contortions and genre-mandated twists that rob it of any potential depth. Screenwriter Benjamin August is also concerned with making sure that even the dimmest bulb in the audience fully understands each successive kink by including constant, on-the-nose, often repetitive lines of dialogue. So all the things that Plummer has already communicated with just the tiniest change of expression get verbalized after the fact, which is frustrating for the halfway engaged viewer who has to keep stopping to let the film catch up. The separation of these two warring impulses in “Remember’ amount to a segregation of plot and theme, with the former carried by the pedestrian script and the latter living entirely in Christopher Plummer’s performance. It’s a little like watching a champion jockey saddle up a mule.
Zev is a 90-year-old, dementia-afflicted Jewish man living in a hospice for the elderly, sitting shiva for his recently deceased wife Ruth. His son, daughter, and grandchildren are with him too, but it is a fellow hospice resident, the wheelchair-bound Max (Martin Landau), to whom he is closest. In fact Max does the remembering that Zev cannot, and supplies him with all the information he needs in a crucial letter, which also outlines a final mission that Zev had apparently promised to take on once Ruth was gone. Zev is to track down the man who murdered both his and Max’s families in Auschwitz, who has evaded justice all these years and is living under an assumed identity, and kill him. Unquestioningly following the instructions in the crucial letter, which he has to remind himself to read “Memento“-style, Zev’s steals away in the dead of night and embarks on a sort of road trip — after stopping off to buy a gun — that sees him meet and interrogate four men (Bruno Ganz, Heinz Lieven, Dean Norris, and Jurgen Prochnow) in his quest to locate the architect of his family’s murder.
There are some insightful, fleet touches to Egoyan’s film that point to a more successful synthesis of genre and character than is achieved. The way gun salesmen, border control officials, and the grown up family members of the men he visits all assume that Zev is benign, simply because he is old. The way Zev plays two pieces of music in the course of the movie: one of them by the Jewish Mendelssohn, one by Hitler’s favorite composer, Wagner (a thought Mychael Danna‘s omnipresent score reflects throughout, often employing warring melodies played on separate instruments to suggest inner conflict). And there are times like when he first sits at the piano and wonders if he can still play, that it feels like the film is suggesting that the whole mechanism of vengeance, for a crime Zev cannot even remember, is playing out almost like a muscle memory; revenge as an involuntary reflex. But then the next daft thing happens, or the next overwrought point gets hammered home (like the wildly unnecessary coda at the end), and you realize you’re probably over thinking it.
It’s hard to know what to make of Egoyan these days, especially after the nadir represented by the terminally silly “Captives.” “Remember” is a marked improvement on that title, but that is pretty much the definition of faint praise. What’s so frustrating this time out is that it’s such a waste — of an intriguing, layered premise for one thing, but most especially of Christopher Plummer’s late-career brilliance. Having such a strong element in the mix and then turning in this fairly ordinary B-movie feels like the result of special effort that’s tantamount to an act of reverse alchemy: taking the gold of an insightful, genuine central performance and working furiously to spin it back into straw. [C+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Venice Film Festival.