Atom Egoyan’s ongoing search for his own best form makes no real breakthrough in “Remember,” a state-hopping Nazi-hunt mystery that puts a creditably sincere spin on material that is silly at best. At worst, tyro writer Benjamin August’s screenplay is a crass attempt to fashion a “Memento”-style puzzle narrative from post-Holocaust trauma. Toggling variables of disguised identity and dementia, as Christopher Plummer’s ailing German widower travels across North America in search of the camp commander he recalls from his time in Auschwitz, the pic is riddled with lapses in logic even before a stakes-shifting twist that many viewers might see coming. Crafted in utilitarian fashion by Egoyan, “Remember” does little to earn the poignancy of Plummer’s stricken performance — though that asset, plus a button-pushing premise, could attract reasonable interest from older arthouse auds.
It’s probably best not to wonder how much more artfully the Egoyan of “The Sweet Hereafter” might have handled “Remember’s” unreliably braided concerns of mourning and memory — not least because it’s hard to imagine that director choosing a script as questionable as this one in the first place. Thanks to some deft, empathetic playing, the film will draw an emotional reaction from certain sectors of the audience simply for broaching the sensitive topics it does, despite a superficial engagement with the psychology of Holocaust survivors and perpetrators alike. Likewise, its final reel upends proceedings as a conversation-starter, without saying anything of particular consequence about the first-hand grief and guilt swiftly disappearing with its eldest characters.
Plummer’s character Zev Guttman has, it would appear, done his best to suppress the memory of what happened in Auschwitz for 70 years, having since built himself a loving new family and a comfortable new life that he’s set to see out in a New York City nursing home. Now, with his wife having recently passed, he finds himself trying to dredge up the experience for the sake of psychological closure — only to find that the suppression, in his growingly senile mind, may no longer be voluntary. Regular prompts arrive in the form of Max (Martin Landau), a wheelchair-bound fellow resident of the home and an Auschwitz contemporary of Zev’s, who claims to have traced the identity of the justice-evading Nazi commander who tormented them and killed their families.
With both men determined that the official, living incognito somewhere on the continent under the alias Rudy Kurlander, be brought to account, Max has drawn up an elaborate trail for the more physically able Zev to track him down. Four men of the appropriate name and age have been identified in Canada, Ohio, Idaho and California; following Max’s detailed written instructions, the frail but resourceful Zev escapes the nursing home and hits the (rail)road, leaving his uninformed son Charles (Henry Czerny, given little but hand-wringing to do) in an understandable state.
Suffice to say that his cross-country journey is a little more prosaic than the one undertaken by Sean Penn in Paolo Sorrentino’s markedly different Nazi-chasing fable “This Must Be the Place,” though in its most effective moments, Egoyan summons at least some semblance of the strange, secrecy-fixated nature of his better work: An inadvertent encounter with a virulent anti-Semite in his swastika-stamped Boise home is genuinely creepy, characterized by a kind of uncanny absurdity rather than the flat implausibility of the pic’s other key exchanges. Egoyan acts less directly on other opportunities to probe the eerie endurance of such prejudice in contemporary America, while d.p. Paul Sarossy opts mostly for a cruelly bright daylight palette. There is a state-of-the-nation comment inherent in the pointed ease with which Zev, though visibly ill-equipped to use it, manages to buy and carry a gun. As the weapon comes into play, however, larger ethical and existential questions over justified violence render gun control an ill-fitting point in this narrative.
Zev’s travels proceed with slightly improbable ease: The complicating factor throughout is his own misfiring memory, as he frequently forgets the purpose of his mission, or indeed that he’s on a mission in the first place. At one point, he takes to scrawling reminder notes on his skin, calling to mind Guy Pearce’s disoriented detective in “Memento,” though the camera makes a queasy point of the similarity between such short-term scribblings and the Auschwitz identity number tattooed on his forearm — a grim prompt to the past that keeps eluding his long-term recall. By the time Zev tracks down the final Rudy Kurlander, the catharsis that awaits him feels less climactic than it does inexorable.
Plummer lends considerable dignity and contained anguish to a character whose manhunt is complicated by his own constantly crumbling sense of self, though the strong supporting ensemble — including Bruno Ganz and Jurgen Prochnow, distractingly latex-bound as two of the supposed Kurlanders — finds few nuances in the thin, declamatory writing. Working overtime, on the other hand, to supplement the script is Mychael Danna’s molasses-heavy score, which piles on the strings (including sporadic klezmer-style motifs that seem to play in Zev’s headspace as flickering concentration-camp flashes) to undiscriminating effect.