In a New Thriller, Age is No Barrier to a Survivor's Revenge
The Nazi revenge fantasy is a tiny yet fascinating slice of the filmmaking pie. Recent examples include 2006’s Black Book, an erotic thriller about a young woman avenging her family, and Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 hit Inglourious Basterds, which depicts a special squad of Nazi-killing Jews bent on eliminating Hitler himself. In 1981, Stephen Spielberg crafted perhaps the most iconic instance of the revenge fantasy with Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which the most powerful Jewish artifact in history gleefully melts the faces off an entire squadron of Nazis.
Whether thriller, black comedy, or action flick, the Nazi revenge fantasy can be found couched in any film genre. In the new film Remember, the story is told within the familiar Hitchcockian confines of film noir by Canadian, Academy Award-nominated director Atom Egoyan.
Remember follows Zev, played with equal parts befuddlement and determination by an enigmatic Christopher Plummer, as he embarks on a quest to fulfill a promise to his wheelchair-bound friend Max (Martin Landau): to find the Nazi camp guard who murdered their families at Auschwitz and to assassinate him. Complicating matters is the fact that Zev and Max live in an retirement home, and Zev suffers from ever-worsening dementia. To assist Zev in his mission, Max lays out step-by-step instructions, which Zev reads and rereads any time he forgets his mission.
I’m reminded of Christopher Nolan’s groundbreaking neo-noir Memento, in which a hit man with memory loss has to consult the tattoos on his body, inscribed by design, to remind him of his purpose. Egoyan slyly acknowledges the two films’ similarities by having Max scrawl on his arm, “Read the letter.”
Unlike Memento, though, the film plays to its premise with startling simplicity, relying neither on flashbacks nor any kind of storytelling contrivance to move along its plot. For 90 percent of the film, the camera never strays from Zev, who occupies the center of the screen, heroically pursuing his prey, despite his confusion. It makes for a terrific showcase for Plummer, whose laconic grimace and twitchy eyebrows reveal a man about to lose touch with reality as he endeavors at great peril to piece together a high-stakes puzzle.
Indeed, as Zev crosses off his list of potential suspects, each circumstance becomes progressively more dangerous, especially in the boonies around Boise, ID. Here Zev encounters the son of a Nazi who may be the man he is hunting – a local cop and Third Reich enthusiast played to perfection by Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris. Like other scenes, this tense encounter is filmed in a dimly lit room with faces half in shadow, blurring whether Zev is the hunter or the hunted.
As a pulp fiction film, Remember does not delve into the moral ambiguity of seeking vengeance nearly three quarters of century after the crime. Rather than considering if what Zev is doing is right or wrong, the film bids us to jump onboard as Zev conquers obstacles and crosses words off his sullied list. This viewer, at least, was rooting for Zev to take his pound of flesh with relish.
Remember is not your typical thriller. Aton Egoyan takes what could be an overcalculated revenge tale and centers it on a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor with a Glock pistol and a shaky grasp on reality. But like any good noir, Zev still has a surprise or two left in him.