‘Remember’ digs up a history of violence

Photo: A24

William Faulkner wisely wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” No matter how hard we try to suppress and forget, the sins of the past will come to light, often in an unpleasant manner and especially at an inopportune time.

That past is haunting Zev Guttman (Christopher Plummer) an elderly man suffering from dementia, but plagued by the nightmares of his youth as an Auschwitz prisoner.

A recent widower, Guttman now lives in a New York retirement home with lapses in memory that at first seem harmless, but as Guttman’s past bubbles up, it reveals deeper and darker secrets. The secrets are also shared by another resident at the retirement home, Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau), who was also a prisoner at the camp and has spent his life trying to track down the S.S. officer who tortured and killed both his and Guttman’s family.

Rosenbaum’s exhaustive search has zeroed in on four men with the name Rudy Kurlander — in California, Ohio, Idaho and Canada — one of which must be the man he is searching for. But Rosenbaum is confined to a wheelchair and cannot leave the home and recruits the more physically able Guttman to carry out his revenge. Even though Guttman’s dementia is getting worse, Rosenbaum is confident that with enough instructions, he can guide his friend on this quest.

Dementia may have clouded Guttman’s ability to recall the past, but his actions betray him and Guttman is much more capable than even he seems to understand. Though, playing the forgetful old man serves him well in many situations, including purchasing a pistol and charming a neo-Nazi into letting him into his home.

And this imbalance is what makes Remember such an odd duck. What starts as a depressing portrait of old age, dementia and loss, quickly turns into a pulpy revenge story when Guttman hits the road looking for Officer Kurlander. This road trip takes Guttman, and the audience, to some dark places. Particularly Guttman’s encounter with John (Dean Norris from Breaking Bad), a son of Kurlander who is very much keeping his father’s anti-Semitic Nazi torch aflame.

Remember leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Maybe it’s because Guttman’s dementia is exploited, both by him and by others. Or maybe it is because director Atom Egoyan and screenwriter Benjamin August plug Plummer’s genteel sophistication into their tale of revenge. Egoyan has made a name for himself with sleazier material — Exotica (1994) and Chloe (2009) — but both were much more tightly constructed. In Remember, the ultimate twist is a momentous one, but it is so confounding that it barley feels earned.

Yet, though it has a sour taste, Remember’s commentary of our political climate makes the movie linger in the mind longer than it should. The sins of the past are never fully buried. Partly, because we still have not fully dealt with them, and partly because some people simply don’t want them to die. Bigotry and racism continue to bubble forth and rear their ugly heads and remind us that the past doesn’t simply affect the present, it is the present. No wonder we try so hard to forget.

ON THE BILL: Remember. March 24–26, Boulder Arts Cinema, 1001 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder, boulderdowntown.com/boulder-art-cinema. Tickets start at $9