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.