Crafting the intelligent thriller is a tough assignment: A sufficiently twisting plot can take up so much artistic space there's little room left for satisfying development of character and themes. Atom Egoyan's new film Remember is admirable – remarkably, it builds a drama of genuine suspense around the quest for vengeance of a forgetful 90-year-old – but it is also frustratingly limited in ways that can't really be discussed without revealing its surprise ending.
Christopher Plummer plays Zev Guttman, an old Jewish man in a nursing home who keeps forgetting that his wife Ruth died last week. Another patient, the wheelchair-bound Max (played with fine clarity by veteran Martin Landau), is determined that despite signs of dementia Zev will not forget their agreement that after Ruth's death the old men would finally act: Both Max and Zev were at Auschwitz and they have hatched a plan to hunt down and execute the camp commander, living under an alias somewhere in North America.
And so, in a weird reverse of the comic or sentimental coming-of-age journey, Zev starts out by bus and by train across the United States and Canada, seeking German émigrés named Rudy Kolander. At first the gap between Zev's abilities and his dark assignment is almost comic – his attempt to purchase a Glock will keep audiences on the proverbial edge of their seats – and also deeply moving. Plummer's performance is quietly magnificent, turning the heavy breathing, shaking hands and slow responses of the elderly into a heart-rending vulnerability while also capturing his character's enduring intelligence and psychic pain. He clutches in one curled, liver-spotted hand the letter of instructions Max has drafted for him, clinging to it as though it were his very mind.
But as Zev ticks off one innocent Rudy Kolander after another from Max's list, Egoyan has darker purposes in mind than this humane portrait of old age. When Zev's confrontation with a real neo-Nazi (a devilishly friendly Dean Norris) turns horrific, the screws tighten by several notches and Zev begins his journey toward the one who must surely be the right Rudy.
In the film's last moments, Egoyan and his screenwriter – the script is a debut effort from producer and casting director (Benjamin August) – hugely complicate the nature of the assignment and of Zev himself. It's an interesting complication, but one of little use to the viewer since the action is now over and there is no place for Plummer to examine the character further.
Like many a thriller, Remember depends on a series of utterly improbable coincidences but, at its best, it creates plot devices of almost Hitchcockian cleverness: As his journey prolongs itself, Zev buys himself some clean, short-sleeved shirts on special at a mall, leaving viewers dreading the moment when he will take off his jacket and uncover the all-too-revealing number tattooed on his arm. Max's letter, meanwhile, keeps popping up at the best – and worst – moments. And, of course, there is dastardly irony to the central premise, forcing an old man with dementia into a dangerous quest that depends on his accurate recollection of the past.
The final resolution of the film is also clever – too clever, giving suspense priority over any further discussion of the nature of the character Plummer has so carefully created, the reality of his pain and his relationship with Max. Remember may leave an audience pondering Zev's long life, but that will be an unsatisfying exercise because the film snuffs out the possibility of meaningful answers in its final frames.