Memory minds. It minds who you are, but, more particularly, who you were. It minds who you love, but, quite peculiarly, who you hate. For Zev and Max, it all has been a long ride till retaliation. For if it is true that no vengeance is possible without memory, no grievances exist when they cannot be truly reminisced. They may be there, in the body, making their way — but the unawareness of oblivion may attribute to these ailments other roots, other sources. Justice, in this view, cannot exist without a clear memory of what happened — and it gives the impression it can only be achieved by getting even.
Both protagonists of Atom Egoyan’s latest film, Remember, Zev Gutman (Christopher Plummer, “Danny Collins”) and Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau, “Entourage”), know well their chance of evenness has evaporated with the passing of the years. There’s no justice without memory, that much is clear, but a fair question would be: Is one subservient to the other? If so, an even standing is impossible, irreconcilable at the very least. This film thus does ask this question, and it does so with the intelligence that has characterized the filmmaker over the years: What does vengeance mean when the memory of the avenger is slowly vanishing, the self slowly losing itself, fading from its fearful recipient, a soulless search to vindicate wrongs he no longer remembers? Zev, as you may probably have inferred (hadn’t you’ve seen the movie yet), is slowly but surely losing his memory — and somewhat his mind.
There is a twist to the Jewish legend of the Golem cleverly played by Egoyan and, to some extent (if unwittingly) by Benjamin August’s script. As the only two survivors able to identify the Nazi official that killed their families (among so many others) in Auschwitz, Zev and Max team up to hunt him, find him and, ultimately, kill him. But they’re a little bit too late. Perhaps it is because Zev promised not to get involved in such enterprise while his wife was alive. Now, as we meet him, calling her at the middle of his vigil, disconcerted as he awakes in the nursing home where she has just passed away, Zev is reminded of his promise by Max at the first opportunity he finds. Time ticks, and it does fast. It is a race against time, for the death of any of the three involved would be catastrophic for their desire for justice.
There are four identified individuals with the stolen-name/identity that the Nazi official used to avoid trial and get refuge in the US. Four Rudy Kurlanders are detected, spread across the US and (of course, this is Egoyan) Canada. But only one of the two avengers can cross the country, and only one can do the planning. Here’s where the Golem motif comes in. The able-minded, Max, has no body for the enterprise, his has failed him a long time ago, while Zev, the able-bodied, has no mind to undertake the search, his is slowly forgetting where time goes. So one, Zev, becomes the other’s body, Max’s, his Golem in the vindictive venture of locating the right Kurlander and terminate him right at the spot. These are traces tracked by others — trails by others tailored.
Zev wanders, meanders with only one compass: A letter that Max has written to remind him that his wife has died and that he has thus embarked in a murderous mission. But this Golem is all the more pitiful because he is a monster with a past, and he has to relive his grief each and every time he opens his eyes and said letter afterwards — he’s to never relieve his pain.
Once upon a time there was this bold, impenitent yet pertinent, passionate and politically incorrect filmmaker — and he was surprisingly Canadian . . . and was not David Cronenberg. We actually thought there was an heir, if working with very different genres and having very different styles, for the guts imprinted in each and every frame were almost as tangible as his sharp intelligence. His name was Atom Egoyan.
A rising star, he only got better with every script he filmed. This went all through the 80s and, some short films and one feature later, he filmed his first masterpiece, “Family Viewing.” With one of the cleverest opening scenes of the decade, this movie explored the nature of video and the ubiquity of the screen with a grasp and raw insight that outdid most of its contemporaries (including Steven Soderbergh). The promising director showed to have a unique talent to create visual analogies that he was able to unassumingly integrate into his plots. Other masterpieces, classics and great films followed all the way through the 90s, from “Speaking Parts” to “Calendar” to “Exotica.” Then he filmed his magnum opus: “The Sweet Hereafter” — and there was nothing after that.
What happened to Egoyan after what is likely his greatest film so far is (and maybe will be) open to speculation. The thing is that he didn’t sell out; he continues filming rather low-budget films, somewhat independent, always related to Canada and, when possible, to his beloved Toronto. What is perhaps even more intriguing is that not a piece of his intelligence is missing. He is, doubtless, a highly intelligent director, and, visually, he can still pull together analogies with both brains and class — but, unfortunately, with no heart. Some would say that his art, for some reason, lost its bloodstream, that there’s no heart in them anymore. And it would be true. But I would go further, for it is not so much an organ what his films currently lack. What he has lost — casualty of youth, oh precious youth — is his mojo.
It is funny in this context then to speak about a movie that talks about the suppression of the self via the memories thereby suppressed. For Zev’s is an induced dementia; he’s a man wanting to forget — that was his first mission, the one we enter too late in the movie to witness, but the one, as well, that unfolds before our eyes, for here’s a man running from who he was and then forgetting who he is. Zev’s self is Egoyan’s zest.
And if I said that what happened to the director will be open to speculation it is because we should not give in to the temptation of creating gratuitous relationships just for the sake of it. What I’m pointing out is an analogy, nonetheless — not to be confused with a causality . . . only casually related to either casualty.
But back to Remember, Zev’s waning memory is in stark contrast with his cemented imagination, as forgetting and lying are interwoven as though of one entity we were speaking. “Living a lie is not living a life,” says Zev . . . or something like that; I can’t recall his exact words. Not that I should. Benjamin August’s preachy lines are among the most annoying flaws that this movie has. Even though the cast does their best to go past this issue, and even though both Landau and Plummer inject their lines with determined doses of dignity, they still sound silly, when not ridiculous, to the foreign eye — for not even Plummer in all his dexterity can sustain his German accent with such accentuated sanctimoniousness.
Self-righteousness aside, Egoyan is smart enough to play with this card and to take us to the film sudden change of course in a matter of milliseconds. The dialogues annoying Tartuffery is therefore shifted to the weighty evidence that stems as we see the consequences of trying to train one’s memories, to select what one wants to remember over what one wants to forget . . . so as to hence avoid any kind of trial against oneself. Memory is autonomous though, and, when violated, it just stops working; it is a fragile ecosystem — an echo-system that confines the liar within the bouncing walls of their own machinations: An environment enveloped in ever-lasting confusion-fusion-fission . . . forgetting who they are/were.
The then upon which memory depends, the perfect synthesis between before and after, the guiding compass of the now is thus reversed by inventions, by the invented need of revenges that were not of Zev’s pick. We look at this, and we can’t help looking with some respite. For although Remember will not be remembered as an important Holocaust movie — regardless the literality of its title — it won’t be remembered either as a manipulative one as so many of these specimens populate this (sub)genre.
Egoyan is still indubitably talented and tremendously intelligent, still more than capable to make a point and to make it well — frigidity notwithstanding. His point, in this way, is loud and clear: Memory lies when memory is lied to. Then the world is unreliable as much as we realize that we are so as well, that so we have been all the way back. When the lie is a chronic one, there’s just no place where to lie our thens.