In the mid-1990s, it seemed as if Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan was well on his way to becoming one of cinema's most distinguished directors. He won widespread critical acclaim for Exotica, and earned a Best Director nomination for his tremendous work on The Sweet Hereafter. Alas, his career has been in a slow-but-steady decline since that point, and his most recent features (Devil's Knot, The Captive) have earned him outright scorn. His latest effort, Remember, has also gotten plenty of bad reviews, but to my eyes it's the most interesting thing he's made in years: a clever, demented exploitation flick disguised as a somber arthouse drama.
Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music) stars as Zev Guttman, an elderly concentration camp survivor whose wife has just passed away. Long ago, Zev vowed that if he was still alive after his wife passed, he would go on a revenge mission to hunt down and kill the Nazi guard who murdered his family at Auschwitz. However, he now suffers from dementia, so his best friend Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau, Ed Wood) – another Auschwitz survivor – writes down a series of step-by-step instructions for Zev to hold onto, just in case he forgets the details of his mission and needs something to help put him back on track.
Early on, we feel we have a good idea of how things are going to play out: this will be the solemn tale of a man confronting the painful memories of his past, with just a dash of Memento sprinkled on top to give the whole thing a bit of gimmicky intrigue. However, as the film proceeds, you begin to realize that Egoyan is not actually serving up a thoughtful meditation on the horrors of the Holocaust, but an increasingly nutty revenge thriller that takes some seriously bizarre left turns. Eventually, it becomes clear that Auschwitz is merely being used as a sensationalistic plot device for an exploitative entertainment.
Some viewers have found this offensive, and that's certainly a valid point-of-view. As I noted in my recent review of Son of Saul, I'm wary of people using the Holocaust as dramatic juice for a cinematic roller coaster ride. However, the difference in this case is that Egoyan seems to be completely open about what he's doing: this is a tasteless entertainment that's perfectly willing to own up to the fact that it's a tasteless entertainment, and it doesn't demand that viewers take the whole thing seriously. If you can accept the movie for what it is – admittedly a tall order – it's a fiendishly effective little thriller.
Egoyan's reputation as a prestige filmmaker isn't the only thing that gives the film an illusion of arthouse depth. Christopher Plummer's performance is such a rich, heart-wrenching piece of work that it effectively blinds you to some of the film's more crassly manipulative elements. Here's a man who has carried unspeakable horrors on his shoulders for seventy years, and whose dementia has placed him in the unfortunate position of being forced to rediscover awful things anew on a daily basis (he keeps forgetting that his wife has died, but is reminded of it every time he returns to Landau's instructions). Still, he seems to grow more comfortable with his mission over time: as he visits each new suspect – including characters played by Bruno Ganz (Wings of Desire) and Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot) – the fear on his face is slowly replaced by righteous fury.
Egoyan's direction is a little too generic at times, a handful of plot developments require some serious suspension of disbelief and the film has a tendency to get a little repetitive (repeating key information more often than it needs to and including a redundant closing scene that undercuts the power of the extraordinary scene which precedes it). Even so, the big moments deliver. The film's high point is a mid-film encounter with a cop (Dean Norris, Breaking Bad) who secretly fantasizes about being a Nazi. It's a strange, tense sequence that eventually reaches a feverish boiling point, allowing the film to completely shed its air of respectability and embrace its status as provocative pulp. It's understandable if some viewers turn the film off in disgust, but I couldn't help but admire Egoyan's nerve. Cautiously recommended.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Year: 2016