Pitched somewhere between The Manchurian Candidate and Memento, Atom Egoyan’s Remember is sensational entertainment. More electric than any octogenarian Holocaust thriller has any right to be, it has the wicked, trashy appeal of Brian De Palma at his best, swapping that director’s lurid morality for equally dubious ethics. To frame genocide through the lens of entertainment is inherently problematic, but any movie as captivating as this demands some attention.
Remember, which opens today at the Glenwood Arts Theatre in Overland Park, is best approached blind. I’ll be careful to present the facts—even minor turns of phrase could blow some of the movie’s most devilish reveals. The elderly Zev (Christopher Plummer, dynamically doddering) awakes in a panic: he doesn’t know where he is and can’t find his wife. He fumbles a bit and an orderly (whose manner suggests she’s done this before) tries to calm him: he has dementia; he’s in a rest home; his wife has recently passed. Zev’s wheelchair-bound friend Max (Martin Landau, all effortless menace) surreptitiously fills in the rest: they’re both survivors of Auschwitz (Zev’s tattoo confirms this); both of their families were killed in the camp; and Zev has agreed to a mission: hunt down the camp’s Blockfuhrer, who’s been living in America under the name “Rudy Kurlander” for seventy years. Despite Zev’s deteriorating cognition, he’s never forgotten Kurlander’s face and is the only man alive who can bring the monster to justice. A nap is enough to wipe Zev’s memory, but this is an escaped Nazi—the gravity of the situation justifies a Silver Alert. Armed with an envelope of cash and Max’s dossier, Zev escapes the nursing home and embarks on his cross-country manhunt.
The movie has a built-in ticking clock—there are four potential Kurlanders across the country. That the last one will be his man isn’t giving anything away. Each Kurlander offers competing perspectives on the horrors of the Third Reich: one served proudly under Rommel, another was persecuted for his sexuality. In a cramped cottage perched on the edge of a blast site, Kurlander Number Three offers echoes of the unfathomable monstrosity of it all.
Here, Remember seems to know in its gut that it has to reach beyond the trappings of the genre in which it was conceived. And while the sequence is unreal and horrifying, it’s also a grotesque and sickly funny piece of bravura moviemaking that simultaneously exploits Holocaust signifiers and acknowledges the burden of exploitation. It never quite clears that hurdle. By the time we meet the final Kurlander in a whopping, white-knuckle setpiece, the movie has given itself over entirely to the fantasy of genre zip.
Does the word “fantasy” have any right near this subject? It’s doubtful, and even now my impulse is to resist. But Remember is genuinely gripping entertainment, and that I inadvertently abandoned that impulse for a few hours is an accomplishment in itself. Whether that accomplishment is an honorable one, well, that’s where I begin to hesitate.
Remember. Directed by Atom Egoyan. Written by Benjamin August. Starring Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, and Dean Norris. Opens Friday, March 25 at the Glenwood Arts Theatre, 3707 W. 95th St., Overland Park, KS 66206.