Remember takes Nazi revenge drama to gloomy extreme

Director Atom Egoyan's new film recalls some of his best work.

Director Atom Egoyan's new film recalls some of his best work.

"Sometimes I forget things," Zev Guttman (Christopher Plummer) admits while buying a gun early on in Remember. It's a bit of an understatement. Suffering from dementia exacerbated by the recent death of his wife, the 90-year-old wakes up every morning calling out his beloved's name, her passing not yet fully absorbed into his increasingly remote gray matter.

Remember is the newest film by Atom Egoyan, which should excite anyone familiar with his 1990s output and provoke a mixed reaction from those who've seen his more recent work. At one point he was among the most compelling filmmakers in the world; The Sweet Hereafter and Exotica, stone-cold masterworks both, are towering evocations of grief and disenchantment. But the writer/director has more recently produced a number of misfires that hardly seem to share any cinematic DNA with his earlier movies. It's as though, after perfecting a formula, he mixed up the ingredients and has yet to get the balance right again.

Whether Egoyan relates to a man who has forgotten certain things of great import is hard to say, but it comes as a relief that his latest is certainly an improvement over the likes of Devil's Knot and The Captive.

We don't know how many times Zev (Hebrew for "wolf") has been told anew of his wife's passing, but it's clear that the cumulative effect is worse than he consciously realizes. Confined to a nursing home at the film's beginning, he's asked by a friend (Martin Landau) whether he remembers what he said he would do after Ruth's departure from this mortal coil. He doesn't, of course, and so the man tells him to get on a train to Cleveland and keep a carefully written letter nearby at all times to remind him of an agreed-upon task.

At its best, Remember brings to mind Egoyan's unique ability to build tension via the artful withholding of key information — bits and pieces are brought to light incrementally, mirroring Zev's own fragmented recollection process. It never feels arch or overdone here, especially since, unlike Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, Remember unfolds in linear time. We learn early on, for instance, that Zev and his friend both survived the death camp at Auschwitz — unlike their families. We also discover that Zev is on a somewhat unwitting quest for revenge against the Auschwitz guard responsible, his instruction-giving compatriot of sound mind but more physically frail than the spry widower.

There are complications, of course. Four different Germans with the same name as the Nazi in question emigrated stateside at roughly the same time. It's up to Zev to piece together which of them is his actual target. All the best revenge movies call the very notion of vengeance into question, but few make us wonder whether it's all worth it quite like one in which everyone involved is pushing 90. (In a moment of overstated irony, one of the men Zev visits turns out to be a fellow Auschwitz survivor.)

The journey is unglamorous in every detail, from the Holiday Inn Express in Boise to an expired passport at the Canadian border. Ultimately, it's more sad than pulse-pounding. This is as it's meant to be: Egoyan has taken the genre to its melancholic extreme. Every bullet fired is a reminder that whoever it's meant to avenge will never come back; it may even further cloud our memory.

Directed by Atom Egoyan
Opens Friday, MSP Film Society