Though even on his worst days Atom Egoyan remains a stylish filmmaker, his choice of material, ever since the time of his finest work—“Exotica ,” “The Sweet Hereafter” and “Felicia’s Journey”—has been erratic, with his most recent films, “Devil’s Knot” and “The Captive,” almost complete misfires. “Remember” is an improvement on those two pictures, but despite the director’s ability to fashion a compelling mood and a remarkable performance by Christopher Plummer, the script by Benjamin August proves to be a narrative puzzle that not only disappoints in the end but comes across as slightly tawdry in the process.
Much like another ambitious potboiler, Ira Levin’s “The Boys from Brazil,” the plot employs the Holocaust as its lynchpin. Plummer plays Zev Guttman, an elderly survivor of Auschwitz resident in a nursing home. His wife has just died, but his recurrent bouts of dementia often make him forget that, along with much else. Following the obsequies for his wife, he’s approached by his wheelchair-bound friend Max (Martin Landau) to undertake the mission they’d previously discussed: tracking down the brutal camp commandant responsible for the murder of their families. Max’s investigations indicate that the man escaped under the name of Rudy Kurlander, and has identified four men with that moniker who might be him. Zev will need to visit each of them, identify the ex-Nazi, and take care of business to avenge the dead.
Carrying a bulky letter from Max that explains everything and defines his itinerary, Zev escapes the home to follow the mandated trail, leaving his son (Henry Czerny) to search for him frantically. Though he usually wakes without remembering what he’s doing, by referring to Max’s instructions he can get back on track, and he scrawls “read letter” on his arm, beside his camp number tattoo, to remind him to do so each morning. It’s like “Memento,” but for older folks.
Zev’s journey begins with a nicely-rendered sequence between Zev and an exceptionally well-mannered young boy on a train, but it quickly starts descending into rank implausibility. A scene in a gun shop, where the old man purchases a firearm with distressing ease, he proceeds to the first Rudy, played by Bruno Ganz, and the second, by Heinz Lieven. In one case the visit requires crossing the international border into Canada, but Zev manages without trouble despite an outdated passport (and that gun he’s carrying). In the end, the two represent very different war histories, but neither is the right man, so Zev is off to confront the third.
This episode is where “Remember” begins to crumble as seriously as Zev’s memory has. The sought-after Rudy is dead but his son, an Idaho state trooper played with scenery-chewing zest by Dean Norris, proves an enthusiastic curator of his deceased dad’s Nazi memorabilia, and when he discovers Zev’s reason for seeking out his father, he—and his dog—threaten the old man, with violent results. Still, this Rudy wasn’t the right one either, so Zev must proceed to the last location—a Lake Tahoe home where the final suspect (Jurgen Prochnow, in makeup so heavy his facial movements can barely register) lives with his lovely family. It’s here that Zev finds what he’s been looking for, though in what August and Egoyan hope will be an unexpected way. (Let’s just say that Zev’s surname is decidedly inappropriate—just one of the clues the makers have included along the way.)
Throughout Egoyan, working with cinematographer Paul Sarossy and editor Christopher Dolandson, manages flashes of the mysterious, hypnotic style that was the hallmark of his early work. (He did in “Devil’s Knot” and “The Capture” as well, but there more sporadically.) And he’s fortunate to have Plummer in the lead; the actor brings both dignity and a querulous quality to Zev, making us genuinely concerned about the danger he’s facing in his quest. The supporting performances are variable, with Norris sadly overwrought, but Landau is as reliable as ever as the determined Max. The other technical credits are professional, though Mychael Danna’s saccharine score gets too much of a workout.
The result is a film that, despite Plummer’s powerful turn, proves too pulpy for its underlying theme about unpunished war criminals—as well as one that serves as a sad reminder of the heights that its director once reached.