It takes some gumption, and no small measure of obtuseness, to go with a moral imperative as the title of your film, especially when there’s little intention of elaborating on that ethic. Atom Egoyan’s Remember is about memory in the literal sense. Zev Gutman (Christopher Plummer), a 90-year-old Auschwitz survivor battling dementia in an upscale hospice in New York, is charged with the task of hunting down the man who held the post of Blockführer and killed his family. The architect of this scheme is a fellow survivor, Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau), an erudite, wheel-chair-bound Jewish scholar who believes the culprit now lives under the name Rudy Kurlander. Gutman slips out of the nursing home one night and embarks on a sprawling, senescent manhunt that takes him across the Canadian border to the outskirts of Boise, Idaho. To help Gutman’s memory, Rosenbaum gives him a lengthy letter that will continually remind him of his mission.
But Remember, as its title plainly suggests, is more than just about the struggle to stave off complete memory loss. Gutman’s painstaking attempts to recollect his hazy past presumably serves as a metaphor for the importance of retaining one of the 20th century’s most horrific atrocities in the backlog of one’s mind. After a while, however, one senses that Egoyan is only interested in using the Holocaust as fodder for carrot-dangling plot contrivances.
In a telling sequence, Gutman arrives at what he believes to be Kurlander’s location, but what actually turns out to be the home of a cop (Dean Norris) whose deceased father was once an SS officer. When Gutman is invited into the house to have a drink, it isn’t clear if the cop is without bad intentions. But this ambiguity is quickly dispelled when Gutman discovers what amounts to a slew of stockpiled Aryan signifiers, from an SS uniform to a copy of Mein Kampf, all brazenly professing the cop’s maliciousness. One anticipates some ironic or subversive angle to emerge from the scene, but nothing of the sort happens. Instead, the roughneck cop lashes out at Gutman with all the incredulity befitting of a caricature: “Are you a Jew? You’re a Jew?!”
Gutman, however, is no caricature, even if there are few other characters in the film who can’t escape that designation. Adopting a stuttering, ersatz German accent to accompany his doubt-ridden visage, Plummer is compelling because he never makes it seem implausible that a character so physically and mentally indisposed would also be fully primed to take someone out.
Egoyan’s camera obsessively notes this implicit contradiction by continually framing Gutman in either close-ups or full shots, ensuring that either Gutman’s plodding gait or his skittish eyes provide a sense of powerlessness. Gutman’s physical toil, in the face of his impending loss of self, turns into a heroic gesture of sorts, never more evident than when Gutman points his pistol at a suspected Kurlander. Remember’s plot may be clinical and procedural (the obligatory Egoyan-ian twist debases the historical tragedy that the film purports to revere), but Gutman is neither of those things.