What separates the truth from a lie that’s been told so many times that it’s inextricably woven into the fabric of the subconscious?
That question echoes through many of Atom Egoyan’s slow-burning thrillers, from The Sweet Hereafter, which untangled the fog created in the aftermath of a horrific accident, to Ararat, which centered on the still largely unacknowledged Armenian genocide. (Egoyan’s grandparents were among its survivors.)
The director’s latest film, Remember, is a revenge drama that follows a nursing-home resident and Holocaust survivor who fights advancing dementia and grief over the recent loss of his wife to hunt down the Nazi concentration-camp guard responsible for murdering his family. Watching the exacting and subtly weathered performance of Christopher Plummer, it’s easy to want Zev Guttman to succeed in his mission.
Zev’s friend Max (a well-cast Martin Landau) has written a detailed letter to see him through it — it contains all of the practical arrangements, such as hotel reservations — but Max is driven by his own motivations. His family was killed by the same guard at Auschwitz.
Events unfold at a frustratingly unhurried pace that first appears to be the result of lazy screenwriting. Questions mount, beginning with the essential one: Why now? Max reminds Zev that he promised to do this after his wife died. And Zev trusts his friend as it grows harder to hold onto his own memories and purpose. But the answer feels too convenient.
Likewise, the way Zev pulls out a gun to confront each of four suspects — all named Rudy Kurlander, the alias the guard assumed when he immigrated to the United States — shreds some plausibility. There’s a sly commentary on our gun-control laws (or lack thereof) when a mall security guard happens upon Zev’s Glock 9mm during a routine search, praising his choice of firearm instead of confiscating the concealed weapon.
But this isn’t a paint-by-numbers revenge plot. When the payoff finally comes, it’s as satisfying as it is perplexing. It’s the kind of ending that continues to re-color the previous 90 minutes, in our minds, for days after viewing it. As with Zev, our own memories can’t be trusted, and what we think of as intractable certainties are just as likely to dissolve without warning.
Most of the holes in Benjamin August’s script — an impressively constructed debut — evaporate with a slight suspension of disbelief. Compared to the way August deals with the distortion of perception, however, the cinematography (by Paul Sarossy, who worked with Egoyan on The Sweet Hereafter and Ararat) is disappointingly straightforward.
Egoyan compensates by eliciting top-notch performances: Dean Norris is particularly memorable as one of the Kurlanders, as is the child actor Peter DaCunha, who has a telling exchange with Zev on a cross-country train ride.
Save for Zev’s worrying son (Henry Czerny), archetypes are largely avoided in favor of characters with deeply conflicted impulses. Even a Nazi will offer you a whiskey occasionally.
Exclusive: Look Cinemas, Dallas
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Atom Egoyan
Cast: Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau
Rated: R (strong language, a sequence of violence)
Running time: 95 min.