Atom Egoyan’s “Remember” is so much more ingenious than is immediately obvious. Not only is there a powerful surprise ending to the film, but the basic notion of the film has meaning well beyond the immediately apparent cleverness of the film’s premise.
This is a Holocaust survivor thriller whose protagonists are two men in their 90s living in a nursing home. One of them, Max, is wheelchair bound. The other, Zev Gutman, suffers, almost hopelessly, from dementia. His memory is tentative at best – almost hopeless in the short run and totally untrustworthy in the long run. The movie takes place over the span of a few days, when Zev wakes up each morning and can’t even remember that his wife, Ruth, died mere days before.
Christopher Plummer, age 86, plays Zev and is extraordinary. Martin Landau, age 87, plays Max, his chair-bound nursing home friend, and is superb. How rare, right off the top, is a thriller starring two powerhouse acting octogenarians?
Far more ingenious is the plot. The memory of Zev (it means “Wolf” in Hebrew, he tells an impressed young boy) is so hopeless that after Ruth dies, Max has to write out extremely detailed instructions for Zev to complete the most important errand at the end of both men’s lives: the assassination of the Auschwitz head guard responsible for the murder of both their families. Max has been in contract with the Simon Wiesenthal Institute. All he knows is that their Auschwitz guard emigrated to North America to live under the name of Rudy Kurlander and is living somewhere in specific areas of the U.S. or Canada.
It is Zev, who is still physically mobile even if his brain retains so little, who is charged, then, with leaving their nursing home, buying a gun and using it on the now-old man who, long ago, destroyed their families. But which Rudy Kurlander is the real one?
The plot of this movie is triply clever in that it wonders aloud about what would happen if a Nazi camp victim were simply no longer able to remember the horrors of what happened long ago – the ones that left a number on his arm and an immutable desire for vengeance in his heart. How good is the camp survivors’ credo of “never forget” and “never let it be forgotten” if camp survivors’ own bodies won’t allow old memories to remain?
So ancient, 90-year-old Zev dodders through the world following Max’s written instructions to the letter, finding all the Rudy Kurlanders of the right age at the addresses supplied to Max by the Wiesenthal Institute.
One is in Cleveland, one is in Canada, one is in Boise. The final emigre Rudy Kurlander is found living a life of startling ease and peace in Lake Tahoe.
The first three are the wrong Kurlanders, Zev discovers, though the second one brings him into contact with that Kurlander’s son John, who reveals that his father was a nostalgic Nazi soldier and an unashamed Nazi to the end of his life. He collected Nazi memorabilia and clung to Nazi memories and ideals, as does his racist, anti-Semitic son now. That Kurlander’s son John is played hair-raisingly by actor Dean Norris, so familiar from starring in major TV roles (“Breaking Bad,” “Under the Dome.”)
Two of the great living German film actors – Bruno Ganz and Jurgen Prochnow – play a couple of the Rudys that Zev discovers now living in North America.
Egoyan has quietly been one of the world’s most interesting directors for a couple of decades now. You never know from film to film when he’ll come through with something as good as “The Sweet Hereafter” and this film.
How “exciting” can a thriller be that stars an 86-year-old actor who plays a doddering 90-year-old dementia sufferer on a mission of 70-year-old vengeance?
A good deal, in fact. See the movie and find out.
And admire, in its final minutes, an ending that almost certainly will come as a surprise to you but which the movie has honorably prepared you for all along.
It’s not just a triumph for Canadian director Egoyan but for writer Benjamin August, whose major credit before this – get this now – was TV’s game show yuckfest “The Fear Factor.”
Who knows where major film talents can suddenly be found? It’s almost as interesting a question as “who knows where Nazi war criminals are able to hide?”
3 stars (out of four)
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Dean Norris, Jurgen Prochnow, Bruno Ganz
Director: Atom Egoyan
Running time: 94 minutes
Rating: R for violence and language
The Lowdown: A 90-year-old dementia patient searches for an Auschwitz war criminal.
Story topics: movie reviews