It’s all in the mind. As in “Memento” and “Mulholland Drive” before it, the function and operation of memory beguiles “Remainder,” an absorbing first feature from prolific Israeli video artist Omer Fast. This noirish, sporadically playful London-set psychological thriller begins as an unidentified object falls from the sky, squashing Tom Sturridge’s nameless protag like a bug and providing the starting point for a brisk but esoteric disquisition on identity and trauma. Adapted by the director from Tom McCarthy’s cult debut novel, the film inevitably but perhaps desirably compresses the book’s complexities. The end product is a kind of distilled, well, remainder of the text: more jarring, more dreamlike, and perhaps harder to follow for the uninitiated.
“What price silence?” is the question that initially propels “Remainder,” as Sturridge’s character awakens from a coma to find his lawyer negotiating an unprecedented reparations settlement of £8.5 million (about $9.7 million) on his behalf. The only condition is that he forget what happened, which is not a problem: He has no memory of the accident in any case. His lawyer clarifies that this means the incident will no longer be legally actionable; he would have to return the money with interest should his tongue loosen down the line. There is a sharp satire of lawsuit culture waiting to unfold here, and the script has a bit of dry fun with this, but that’s not where Fast’s interest principally lies.
“Remainder” is a fundamentally a pic about the ephemeral nature of the human mind: One traumatic physical event is all it takes to erase most of what we consider constitutes our identity. But it’s no politely tasteful psychological rumination. Marked by Tasers, shootings and paperclips pushed under fingernails, a distinct sense of war-zone PTSD hangs over the whole affair. These fleeting moments of visceral violence, taken together with a perpetual sense that anything could be about to happen, help maintain some narrative momentum, despite a structure that would have Robert McKee reaching for the nerve tonic.
Like Humphrey Bogart in the offbeat identity-oriented noir “Dark Passage” almost 70 years ago, Sturridge doesn’t make much attempt to court our sympathy, even though the film is entirely built around him. By the time he decides to spend his new fortune re-creating a half-remembered block of apartments — in an attempt to discover more about who he was before being Chicken Littled into a coma — you’re either on the film’s wavelength or heading for the exit. Sturridge is at his best during his character’s most monomaniacal scenes, where his demands escalate to Kubrickian levels of perfectionism: There must be black cats on the neighboring roof, there must be a pianist a few floors down attempting Chopin, and there must be an old woman perpetually cooking liver, the smell of which must waft up to the apartment above.
Sturridge seizes on the word “waft,” delivering it with an aristocratic sense of relish — in that moment embodying every wealthy hipster who ever worked in property development, gentrifying an old neighborhood with sadistic precision, keen to retain every drop of “character” and “authenticity” while forcing out undesirable elements with bland complacency. As recently demonstrated in Thomas Vinterberg’s “Far From the Madding Crowd,” the actor’s razor-cut good looks lend themselves to this kind of casual callousness.
Supporting him in his grand folly is Naz, played in quietly superb fashion by Arsher Ali (“Four Lions”) as a sort of 21st-century Jeeves. No scheme is too mad, no request too questionable, no demand too outlandish. Naz demonstrates only the faintest surprise when he receives the command that the fresh cats he has had tied to the roof — because the previous lot kept falling to their deaths — be untethered immediately.
Naturally, the film is an art department’s dream; it’s to production designer Adrian Smith’s credit that a film intentionally featuring such contrived environments never feels overly fussy or too self-consciously surreal. Authentic use of London locations helps here, too. Fast and d.p. Lukas Strebel extensively employ shallow depth of field, reflecting our hero’s general inability to focus on anything other than what is right in front of him. This character is detail-oriented, obsessive and blind to the bigger picture — not unusual traits in screenplays about male eccentrics, but rarely are they so effectively rendered via a film’s visual language.
“Remainder’s” protag isn’t the only person with headaches on the horizon: Press and marketing departments have to decide whether to present it as straight-up thriller and risk confusing general auds, or play up their art-world cred, stressing the philosophical head-scratcher angle and their helmer’s Guggenheim pedigree. It’s a conundrum faced by other recent U.K. efforts that combine auteur ambition with genre leanings (“Hyena,” “Catch Me Daddy”), and not a nut that has yet proven easy to crack for distribs bold enough to take on the challenge.