September 9th, 2016: The Light Between Oceans

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Writer/director Derek Cianfrance’s third feature film, The Light Between Oceans, based on the 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, has similar problems to his first couple pictures, Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines. A romantic period-piece about an Australian lighthouse keeper and his wife, the film, more prestigious and expensive-looking than the others, suggests a graduation for Cianfrance from Indie humanist to purveyor of “awards-worthy” middlebrow melodrama. But The Light Between Oceans is more disappointing than its predecessors, because the director’s habitual miscalculations are now amplified on the bigger stage, resulting in a film that’s handsomer, sure, yet just as marred by inconsistency.

Cianfrance directs Michael Fassbender as a returning WWI soldier named Tom Sherbourne. He lands a job manning the lighthouse on an uninhabited island off the coast of Australia. When his contract is extended, he marries a local woman named Isabel (Alicia Vikander), who comes along to live with him in a cottage near the beach. Several months of blissful marriage go by, but then Isabel miscarries, twice, which throws her into a state of deep despair. Soon a shipwrecked rowboat washes ashore with some surprising and felicitous contents. The couple makes a questionable decision which restores their happiness, for a time. Back on land, there are consequences awaiting them, via the authorities and a wealthy man’s widowed daughter played by Rachel Weisz.

In the second half, when their misdeeds catch up with them, the film falters; but in its initial sequences, while Tom and Isabel create a home on the island, it settles into a nice rhythm of elliptical storytelling. Because they guard the island for long durations, without seeing any other living souls, Cianfrance uses montage to compress weeks, months, and even years into an impression of marital life, which feels less like time spent than time remembered. The director borrows from superior filmmakers who perfected the approach, like Terrence Malick and Alaine Resnais. Yet it’s well-suited for a narrative in which naturalistic banality, like the quotidian cyclical variance in sun and tide, juxtaposes with temporal signifiers of promise and devastation, like the growing of a belly and the planting of a grave marker.

Of all the performers, Fassbender most understands that essential struggle. Vikander, while always fetching, does a bit too much bereaved wailing for my taste; while Weisz, for the second time this year, after The Lobster, finds herself adrift in the weaker half of a film egregious in its asymmetry. Fassbender, on the other hand, makes Tom quite complicated and fascinating. Tom is a slave to his duty, as a soldier, an employee, and a husband; but at the same time, he’s haunted by what these obligations have forced him to do, by the sins he’s been required to commit, in the war, of course, but now at home. Thanks to Fassbender, that conflict lives in Tom’s every breathe, glance, or marital embrace. One must consider whether his marriage to Isabel is simply an adherence to the expectation that longterm lighthouse keepers take wives. Where does the loyal soldier end and the loving husband begin?

If you’ve seen his previous films, you know Cianfrance is an audacious structuralist, though I would argue not a successful one: Blue Valentine was missing a second act while The Place Beyond The Pines was too long by a third. Toward the end of The Light Between Oceans, Tom and Isabel find themselves the targets of a lengthy legal investigation, and the movie sinks into tedium as the characters reiterate their convictions ad nauseum. Cianfrance belies the rhythmic allure of his first section with a slog of excessive brooding and superfluous dramatics. One long scene involving a missing chid, for instance, should’ve been omitted all together. Then the coda, set thirty years later, feels shoehorned and sentimental and at odds with the tone throughout. Cianfrance, when planning his conclusion, should’ve studied Malick a little closer. Days of Heaven offers a paragon for how to wrap up such a film with swiftness and poetry.

When all is said and done, after the final tear has fallen and the last vista of the Aussie coast fades away, The Light Between Oceans leaves you with little besides a vague sense of romantic optimism. That’s problematic considering that the film obviously has larger ambitions. Its Biblical references to The Garden of Eden, with Tom and Isabel as the original sinners in a private paradise, and The Judgement of Solomon, wherein two women make maternal claims on the same child, come to little. Then again, neither Tom’s battle fatigue nor his Dostoyevsky inspired ordeal of crime and punishment help to clarify the film’s intended accomplishments. Blue Valentine was, at least in theory, about the process of falling into and then out of love, while The Place Beyond The Pines explored the heredity of masculine deportment. The Light Between Oceans, part compelling drama, part boring legal saga, surfaces as a pretentious and confounding work from a gifted but unreliable filmmaker.

September 2, 2016: Hell or High Water

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David Mackenzie’s compelling cops-and-robbers Western, Hell or High Water, recalls the Coen Brothers’ Oscar-winner, No Country For Old Men; but rather than a meditation on mortality and chance, Hell or High Water, also set in West Texas, has a richer, more sympathetic populist humanism. Mackenzie’s compassion for the setting’s rural shop-owners, diner waitresses, ranchers and cattle rustlers, coupled with an appreciation for their historical tribulations engendered by environment, war, poverty and greed, makes his above-average crime drama of fraternal stickup men a work of tense but unassuming gravity. He gives it the moral weight of history repeating itself.

The screenplay, by Taylor Sheridan, chronicles the criminal exploits of the Howard brothers: stoic divorcee Toby (Chris Pine) and loudmouth parolee Tanner (Ben Foster). In the first scene, they knock off the local branch of a prominent Texas bank, but they are smart enough to do so early, before the crowds arrive, and they take only the smaller, untraceable bills from the tellers’ drawers. Instead of laying low afterward, they move on to another branch down the road, and semi-retired Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) recognizes the pattern and attempts, with his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), to predict their next target, where he’ll ambush them. The Howard boys are raising money for mysterious purposes, which puts them on a violent collision course with Hamilton somewhere in the Southwest.

That’s the premise, but the actors whittle distinct characters from these simple archetypes. Bridges’ Hamilton, with gums stuffed with tobacco and sunflower seeds, has one cheek on the rocking chair of retirement, but his loyalty and integrity make it impossible for him to let the past rest. Bridges plays him like Rooster Cogburn from True Grit, with his typical shabby insouciance, which is remarkable in its mixture of awkwardness and grace. Foster seems born to play deep-fried loose-cannons. Tanner may be a murderous career criminal, but thanks to Foster, we understand that he has protected his younger brother his whole life (often from their abusive father) and won’t stop now. Toby, quiet and handsome, with a face weathered and browned by sun and dirt, is the film’s salt-of-the-earth center, and Pine gives him a noble conscience tested by desperation.

It takes a good director to elicit these portrayals, and Mackenzie is equally good with his camera. Not stylized like many Westerns and neo-Westerns, he shoots with a photorealistic daylight crispness that lends the timbre a plainspoken verisimilitude. The director often allows scenes to unfold in long takes or static two-shots. In the opening bank robbery setup, or the closing landscape photography of high grass and oil derricks, we see the precise, classical choreography of his camera moves. The influence of such reserved sagebrush masters as John Ford becomes apparent in homages to iconic images from My Darling Clementine and The Searchers, when Hamilton leans back on his chair on a wooden porch, or when Toby stands outside a homestead’s open doorway. Mackenzie has a solid, unpretentious approach that gives his story some poetry.

As I alluded to before, Hell or High Water has more on its mind than bank robberies. The brothers’ master plan involves stealing money back from banks which they believe have wronged them and other local people. The film draws connections between the perceived misdeeds of callous corporations — who, the film argues, conquer small towns and oppress small town people — and the larger, historical injustices of the American West. At one point, Hamilton’s partner, Alberto, who’s of half-Mexican and half-Native American ancestry, recalls how federal armies once overtook the Comanche’s land and displaced the populace, much in the same way conglomerates, be they banks, oil companies or discount supermarkets, unsettle modern residents. He sees it as a never-ending cycle of oppression. It’s fitting that when the boys need to launder their ill-gotten gains, they wash the money at an Indian casino.

Hell or High Water may sometimes oversimplify the economics, but it creates urgent thematic links between the crime saga of its characters and the bigger contexts of their situation. It’s also scored throughout by the stubbly roots rock of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, whose twang and depth grant the proceedings an authentic outlaw flavor. Songs on the soundtrack like “My Cold Dead Hands” speak to the complicated moral dilemma of Hell or High Water. While a film about powerless people taking back power, the conclusion, when the Howard boys and Hamilton at last come face-to-face, questions how one can live with the sacrifices that such supposed reparations require. And it makes the case that the West, in some places, is still being settled as it always was, by the people who live there.

August, 26 2016: Don’t Breathe

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The horror-thriller Don’t Breathe, directed by Fede Alvarez (of the Evil Dead remake), gets a lot of mileage out its simple premise: amateur burglars rob a blind man’s house and it backfires, horribly. It’s a home-invasion storyline reshuffled, and it goes to show that the strongest horror movies often make the most out of uncomplicated scenarios. The essential ideas for classics like Night of the Living Dead and Halloween can be summed up rather easily: corpses rise to devour the living, and homicidal mental patient escapes, respectively. Don’t Breathe is likewise built on a strong foundational conceit. That’s not to say, as fresh and suspenseful as it may be, that it’s perfectly executed. The characters make some harebrained decisions that I’m still scratching my head about. But I was engrossed from beginning to end, and I admired both the originality of its concept and the ingenuity of its presentation.

Based in and around the vacant, dilapidated areas of Detroit, the story follows Rocky (Jane Levy), a young woman from a rough home with dreams of escaping to sunny California with her younger sister. To earn the necessary cash, she burglarizes homes with her friend Alex (Dylan Minnette) and boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto). These swindlers are smarter than your average breakers-and-enterers, at least in theory, since Alex, whose father works at a security company, has access to equipment that can bypass the alarm systems on safeguarded domiciles. One day Money learns about a major score at a broken-down old house inhabited by a broken-down old army vet (Stephen Lang) who won over 300 grand in a lawsuit. Despite cautious Alex’s initial protests, they drive over there in the dead of night with intentions to break in, subdue the slumbering homeowner with a DIY chloroform bomb, and search for the loot, which they assume, must be hidden somewhere inside.

Like any good horror, or heist movie, for that matter, things don’t quite go according to plan. They soon discover that their victim is visually impaired. That should make things easier, if he weren’t also more resourceful and resilient than they anticipated, turning the tables and trapping them inside. Don’t Breathe could be described as the inverse of the Audrey Hepburn classic Wait Until Dark, wherein heroin smugglers terrorize a blind woman whose home, they believe, stashes valuable narcotics. Here, the blind one does the terrorizing and the intruders become the prey, a clever reversal that allows the director some opportunities for novel staging. The characters can stand literally face-to-face with danger, but remain unharmed, so long as they don’t move, speak or breathe loudly. (Remember Sam Neil standing still while the T-Rex passed by him unawares.) It’s quite unnerving. Shot mostly in grungy, gray interiors, Alvarez captures a mood of decrepit funhouse malevolence that accentuates his tale of desperate youths at the mercy of a lonesome codger with little in the world besides his rundown home and its mysterious contents.

For all its stylistic flair, though, Don’t Breathe makes it somewhat difficult to know who to root for. As menacing as The Blind Man was, I couldn’t help sympathizing with him against three ne’re-do-wells who victimize handicapped veterans and then, when things go wrong, make their situation worse with idiotic decisions. (Why do they always go into the basement?!?) The most likable burglar is Alex, mostly because he’s the only sensible one, relatively speaking, and because he’s motivated by his infatuation with Rocky. Rocky, on the other hand, ostensibly the heroine, is so greedy and chooses the prospect of wealth over safety on so many occasions, that she doesn’t exactly warm herself to us. Are we supposed to care if she finds the money or not? Toward the end some surprise twists make it almost impossible to root for The Blind Man, but I wasn’t exactly cheering on the burglars, either, nor was I excited by my own moral ambivalence. Some might laud the film for provoking such uncertainty, though I wouldn’t, because Alvarez never makes a point out of questioning who the true villains are.

That said, Don’t Breathe is one of the better suspense films I’ve seen in awhile. It explores its unique premise as far as one could hope, maintains the tension throughout and kept me absorbed in the drama. Minus a few too many fake deaths and repetitive captures, escapes and recaptures, it’s lean too — ideal for a thriller. Even more, I found it interesting that here is yet another strong horror film set around condemned urban areas of Detroit, after last year’s It Follows and 2014’s Only Lovers Left Alive. It seems The Motor City, with its air of downtrodden malaise, its necropolis of broken capitalism, has become, to many filmmakers, the Transylvania of post-Recession America, where things don’t just go bump in the night; they go broke overnight. There may be no better place in the lower 48 to lose one’s breath.

April 22, 2016: The Jungle Book

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There’s a point in The Jungle Book when Mowgli, the feral-child hero, happens upon an enormous python named Kaa.  Voiced by Scarlet Johansson in her soothing growl, the serpent approaches the boy like a stranger with candy, promising her protection and hypnotizing him with her protean eyes.  Like all the animals in director Jon Favreau’s visually impressive remake of Disney’s 1967 animated film, which was based on Rudyard Kipling’s classic stories, Kaa is a wonder to behold.  She slithers her lithe body atop and through tree trunks and branches with the malevolent nonchalance of a canopy demoness.  As Mowgli falls prey to her allure, his attention paid fully to the transfixing visions in her shimmery gaze, she subtly wraps herself around him in what could be described as a mother’s embrace, if her intentions weren’t so clearly predatory.  I won’t spoil how (or if) he escapes, but I will say the trap — a ploy other characters pull similarly throughout The Jungle Book — befits a movie that is itself little more than a decent distraction.

The story goes that bony misfit Mowgli (Neel Sethi) must reclaim the jungle from a ferocious autocratic tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba), with help, as always, from bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) as well as the wolf pack that raised him.  The impeccable production design and visual effects make the beasts, especially Shere Khan, with his charred face and rearing fangs, at once tactile and mythological.  However, the filmmakers never balance their darker aspirations with requisite shoutouts to Disney’s good-vibes original.  Renditions of “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” are fun yet incongruous, even if Christopher Walken croons frozen-banana-cool as ape King Louis doing Brando.  Meanwhile, Sethi, the one living being in this so-called “live-action” production, grins like Dopey when what this iteration really demands from its hero is fire.  To be honest, I enjoyed The Jungle Book well enough, but by the final disposable message about respecting law and community (or whatever), I was thinking how much I need to revisit the forgotten swashbuckling 90’s version, with an adult Mowgli.  That one had some real meat on its bones.

April 15, 2016: Francofonia and Colonia

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In Francofonia, director Alexander Sokourov blurs the line between documentary and narrative film; and more impressively, he makes the past almost indistinguishable from the present.  His slow yet adroit film explores the Louvre museum, not only its beautiful halls and galleries, but also its place in Paris, in history, in the legacy of documentation.  The movie turns the palatial rooms into haunted mausoleums, where the ghosts of recent and distant eras can cohabit them.  By focusing mostly on the precarious period of German occupation during WWII, when the museum was threatened and then rescued by a heroic few, we can see that wars and museums share a complex relationship — that the former can destroy, or even bear, the latter.  Sukourov goes beyond the common notion of a “war museum” when he explains how the land where the Louvre sits was originally settled as a defensive citadel against the vikings, or how its many ancient treasures were actually stolen by Napoleon’s imperial armies and brought back to Paris as trophies.  To me, it evoked Hitler’s plan to build a Jewish museum to monumentalize the extinct race.  Francofonia understands that men like Napoleon and Hitler dreamt not just to conquer the world, but also to conquer the past.

If they are the villains, the Louvre’s real-life administrator, Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), and the Nazi minister of art, Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath), are the heroes.  They collaborated to protect the museum’s masterpieces, many of which were smuggled to the countryside before the Germans seized the city.  Their scenes together fall somewhere between drama and dramatization, as if Sokourov seeks to obfuscate the common modes of documentary and narrative filmmaking.  Archival footage reveals how the city around them had become a ghost town, since thousands of French citizens fled south following their government away from the onrushing army.  (The French thereby made Paris an “open city”, in a surrender bargain that ensured protection for denizens and landmarks but at the cost of its autonomy; whereas a city like St. Petersburg, in contrast, maintained its freedom and was left in ruins.) The combination of cinematographic methods places Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich at once within history and beyond it, now part of the Louvre’s spectral legacy, where they can converse with the egotist Napoleon (Vincent Nemeth) and Marianne (Johanna Korthas Altes), a symbolic peasant who intones the dreams of the French Revolution.

Like in a Werner Herzog documentary, Sokourov narrates the story himself while simultaneously attempting to articulate its philosophical meaning.  It’s not my favorite method of documentary narration, and the director even uses framing scenes where he edits the film, talks to himself (hence the voice-over), and struggles to communicate with a friend aboard a sinking freighter carrying a traveling gallery of art pieces.  The scattershot threads of narrative can make the brief ninety minutes a tad lethargic.  However, the film is magnificent when the camera studies the art itself, gazing almost obsessively with the adoring eyes of a curator God.  From the portraiture of the Late Renaissance to the mythical statuettes of Ancient Assyria, Francofonia goes behind the velvet ropes, so close to the museum’s gems that you can smell the sculpted marble and oil paints.  One shot seemed to say it all: the fingers of a sculpture hang down in close-up from the top of the frame, while human fingers rise up from the bottom and attempt to touch them; but since they are actually two separate shots superimposed, the fingers simply pass through one another.  This singular, searching film knows what anyone who ever built, protected or even visited a museum seeks to find: a way to touch history.

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Colonia Dignidad, the subject of the political thriller Colonia, was a political prison in Chile in the 1970’s.  It was unique in that it shared its location with a religious cult, founded by an ex-Nazi named Paul Shafer (played by Michael Nyqvist in the film) who allowed the government use of the facility for interrogation and torture, while the government allowed the acolytes religious privacy and freedom.  But, as the film reveals, that religiosity was a sham and the compound a subterfuge for Shafer to indulge his pedophilia consequence free.  Colonia Dignidad is such a horrifyingly perfect symbol of the collusion between religious hypocrisy and state oppression that one almost cannot believe it’s not fictional.  Inspired by true events, the movie follows Lena (Emma Watson), a German stewardess who joins the cult in order to rescue her socialist boyfriend, Daniel (Daniel Bruhl), after he’s arrested during the military coup by General Pinochet in 1973.  There’s a metaphor somewhere here about how a totalitarian regime can turn a whole country into a nation of prisoners, but Colonia is too shallow to insightfully remark on its protagonists’ ordeal.

In the lead role, Watson is inarguably lovely as always, but she still strikes me as something of a lightweight dramatic actress.  Commanding the screen — something Jennifer Lawrence and Saoirse Ronan do in their sleep — doesn’t come so naturally to her.  Here, while she holds the center well, she makes Lena so singleminded in her mission that sometimes she seems indifferent to the suffering happening around her.  Like in the scene where Shafer makes her grovel before a room of slut-shaming men, the character exudes too much strength and courage, to the extent that we’re never really worried about her.  Bruhl, who I’ve liked since Inglorious Bastards, is good as Daniel, a man who’s survived weeks of cruel questioning, but the residual damage, to body and mind, turns out to be a ruse, a plot device.  I’ll admit, the leads do have nice chemistry, and the climax — an extended suspense sequence — is exciting in an Argo kind-of-way.  Though despite the epilogue condemning the atrocities of Pinochet’s era, I was sure I’d seen a serviceable prison-escape-movie, rather than the intended searing political drama.  Someone still needs to make that film, about the Chilean people, who for decades called that prison home and could never just escape.

 

 

April 8th, 2016: Everybody Wants Some!!

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Everybody Wants Some!!, writer-director Richard Linklater’s semi-sequel to Dazed And Confused, is infectiously funny and endearing, a comedy about college life that first reminds you of how much fun college was, then of how much you miss it.  Filled with great Eighties music from Blondie, Pat Benatar, Van Halen and Talking Heads, and set four years after Dazed’s “last day of school in 1976”, the new film is different from its predecessor, not just in soundtrack and period, but in style as well.  It’s not shot like a documentary, nor is it an art film disguised as a stoner movie, as Dazed was.  It focuses not on an ensemble of interconnecting cliques and rather on one very specific clique.  But the two films share DNA.  Both are about nostalgia, social initiations and coming-of-age, about identities forged from breaking the rules and having as much fun as humanly possible.  Lively and charming, Everybody Wants Some!! is a hangout comedy about partying and getting laid that also, in subtle ways, plays like a bittersweet memory.  (Only in hindsight was everyone you met in college so attractive.)  It’s a damn good time, but it also knows that the best times are those we don’t recognize until we notice them in the rearview mirror.

Freshman Jake Bradford (Blake Jenner) arrives at an unnamed Texas university three days before fall semester starts.  He moves into a dilapidated house off-campus designated for members of the school’s elite baseball team.  Jake, like Pink in Dazed or Mason in Boyhood, is one of Linklater’s confident sponge protagonists — handsome and stoic, constantly absorbing the world around him without letting it crack his sturdy sense-of-self.  His teammates are a colorful bunch who seem mean, but only because, to them, respect is something you must earn.  Finnegan (Glenn Powell) is like Van Wilder played by Brad Pitt, a schmooze artist who, whether discussing astrology, physics in baseball or hitting on chicks, seems to be seducing everybody all the time.  There’s Willoughby (Wyatt Russell), the mysterious holdover from the hippy era; the perpetually pumped Niles (Juston Street), a self-promoting ace who exemplifies why everyone thinks pitchers are weird; and tempestuous McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin), the big-hitting senior for whom, unlike the others, a future career in baseball may not be a delusion.  With these winning characters, the movie is both a raucous frat burlesque (a la Animal House) and more; it’s a story of Bro Culture before it had a name, with a roughhousing cast of alphas and would-be lotharios who are really just figuring life out as it whizzes passed them like a knuckleball.

As with many Linklater films, there isn’t much traditional plot to speak of, rather a series of incidences, and the freewheeling course of events breaks up into several parties, each highlighting a specific cultural attitude vying for attention in the Eighties ethos.  The boys boogie at a club filled with silk shirts and latent disco queens, line dance with country girls at a local honky tonk, mosh with punks at a rock show, where the band plays a thrash version of the Gilligan’s Island theme (a perfect medley of pop culture ubiquity and ostensible rebellion), and even throw a kegger themselves.  Toward the end, Jake brings his bash brothers to a soiree given by drama majors, in a house scrupulously decorated in the psychedelia spirt of Alice In Wonderland.  The film reveals, in its desultory party-hopping fashion, how 1980 was a critical juncture in American culture, when the convergence of styles past and contemporary could overwhelm anyone looking to figure out where they belong.  At one point, Jake remarks that their social life is a masquerade, that playing dress-up is really the collegiate methodology of identity soul-searching.  He inelegantly articulates what we can already see with our eyes, in an example of the dialogued philosophizing that has unfortunately crept into Linklater’s work.

The movie fully won me over with its romantic side, though.  Of the copious coeds roaming campus, Jake decides early that he likes intellectual Beverley, played by Zoey Deutch with the innocuous kink of Isla Fischer and the brainy loquacity of Anna Kendrick.  When she asks him what he wants to study, she’s really asking, “What do you want to do?”  And Jake can’t answer because he can’t think passed playing baseball and having fun (imaging the future would harsh his buzz).  For all Linklater’s laid-back no-sweat storytelling, his sagas of slacker slumming, his true interest is quite deep: a person’s place in time — how age, period and memory shape the experiences we’re having right now.  The Before Trilogy had its countdown clocks and decennial rendezvous, Boyhood its growing-up-before-your-eyes conceit; but Everybody Wants Some!!, like Dazed before it, seems uniquely frozen in time, especially with The Cars lyric “Let The Good Times Roll” echoing in our ears as we exit the theater.  That’s why Linklater’s cinema, and its affinity for rock-infused in-the-moment party addiction, is so heavenly to watch; it leaves you suspended in that blissful moment when the party never needed to end.

April 1st, 2016: Remember

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Zev Gutman (Christopher Plummer), the protagonist of Remember, director Atom Egoyan’s compelling mystery-drama, is an 88-year-old German-American widower with dementia.  Hence, he’s the most unlikely agent of justice.  A Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, Zev is recruited by Max (Martin Landau), an invalid Nazi-hunter at his nursing home, to locate and kill the SS officer that guarded them.  Guided by Max’s memory-jogging letter of instruction, Zev travels across the country carrying a black satchel with hundred-dollar bills and a loaded Glock, seeking the murderer who’s been hiding in the American heartland under a fake name since the war.  He finds several potential culprits, all of whom are old and infirm like him.  As Zev points his weapon and begins interrogating them, his mission feels like a cruel exercise in futility.  These men are already a whisper away from God’s eternal judgement.  So why even bother?  But Remember is more than a condemnation of vengeance; it’s a powerful film about personal and collective memory, about the many people who would rather forget what happened, and the fleeting few who, to their dying breaths, never could.

Egoyan, the acclaimed Egyptian-Canadian filmmaker, has a manner at once cogent and not especially subtle.  A reminder scribbled in ink on Zev’s wrist effectively evokes the tattooed number further down his arm, while a shower-head enveloped in ghostly steam and an inquisitorial policeman with a German shepherd recall Holocaust imagery in more obvious ways.  The film makes two awkward jabs at America’s embarrassingly lax gun-control laws.  In one, a proprietor happily sells confused Zev a handgun, then writes him detailed directions on how to use it.  The most ham-fisted scene, to my mind, was Zev’s encounter with a Neo-Nazi, a not-unbelievable moment handled like a cartoon of ideological bullying.  However, Egoyan is highly skilled at withholding information until the moment of greatest impact.  There’s also a tremendous potency to his tonal control.  One shot, in particular, of Zev running his fingers through the opaque streams of a hotel lobby waterfall, expressed to me very eloquently the film’s theme of blurred recollection.  And Plummer makes Zev the embodiment of that idea, a man driven by the need to rediscover his past, to bring focus to his history.

Admittedly, there is one major flaw here: How could Max, pulling the strings from long distance, booking hotels and chauffeurs, really expect forgetful, barely-there Zev to pull off a masterplan that only grows increasingly elaborate and implausible over time?  Despite that potentially ruinous infeasibility, the film succeeds because Egoyan has bigger concerns than mere plotting.  When it comes to the legacy of the Holocaust, Remember argues that children are the key.  Among others, we find a boy chatting with Zev on a train and a girl in a hospital room reading him Max’s letter.  With their youthful faces, they visually contrast the craggy older men, and more importantly, they listen, since they’re the keepers of our most vital narratives, the true weapon of reckoning.  Late on, Max, a man whose large eyes appear to have seen it all, emerges as the film’s secret soul.  Because this fatalistic thriller of overdue justice, with its sucker-punch finale, is really a warning against cultural senility, it suggests that Max’s great payback is not killing the Nazis, but forcing the world to remember their crimes.