Christopher Plummer may be the first actor in history to do his best work in his ninth decade of life.
By Noah Gittell
Christopher Plummer may be the first actor in history to do his best work in his ninth decade of life. After debuting to worldwide accolades in “The Sound of Music” in 1965, Plummer spent three decades weaving in and out of the public eye. In fact, mostly out. He never had another real moment again until 2011, when at 82 he won an Oscar for playing a late-blooming gay widower in “Beginners.” Since then, he has worked steadily and prominently, and has reached a new pinnacle in Atom Egoyan’s “Remember,” an efficient, prosaic mystery elevated by the spellbinding performance at its center.
Plummer plays Zev, a nursing home resident suffering from dementia. After the death of his wife, his friend Max (Martin Landau) sends him out on a mutually-agreed-upon mission, even though Zev doesn’t remember the details. His only guide is an explanatory letter from Max, which he constantly re-reads, as well as a list of four people with the same name. One of them is the Auschwitz guard who killed their families when Zev and Max were boys. Zev’s task is to investigate each person on the list, determine who is the guard, and enact vengeance.
It’s a nifty set-up, and while Egoyan effectively stages a few set pieces, “Remember” is mostly worth watching for the deeply layered work by Plummer. Zev must hide his confusion from the world but make it plain to the viewer. He holds his failing body with the posture of a younger, more confident man, and when he finds himself in dangerous situations — like when he inadvertently ends up in the home of a violent neo-Nazi (Dean Norris) — he is forced to defend himself with the acuity of an action hero. That’s not something we’re used to seeing octogenarians do, and it makes for thrills with even higher stakes.
And yet, the drama conflicts with the film’s surprisingly bland visual style. Although Zev travels from New York to Cleveland to Boise to Reno, Egoyan has no apparent interest in showing the changing scenery. The film evokes the Beatles’ description of touring through Europe that serves as the genesis of Richard Lester’s “A Hard Day’s Night” — “It was a train and a room and a car and a room.” At least the uniformity serves a purpose here, representing a journey that is entirely internal. This is not an opportunity for sightseeing. The only time Zev’s surroundings are even noticeable is in the film’s harrowing climax, in which the beautifully-kept, upper-middle class home of his potential victim underscores the way his memory has been diluted by the trappings of the American dream.
And yet despite this depth of feeling and filmmaking acuity, some will still find the film’s thrills and revelations unearned, as they stem mostly from a withholding of information. The full contents of Max’s letter to Zev, for example, are revealed systematically, leaving the audience in the dark on matters of crucial importance. For viewers who resist such manipulations, “Remember” will be frustrating. But keep in mind that these tricks mirror the experience of our protagonist, who must re-assemble the narrative of his life in stops and starts.
It even speaks to our collective experience of the Holocaust itself. We are asked to “never forget,” but that urgent request becomes trickier as time marches on and the survivors leave this world in increasing numbers. Through this central metaphor and Plummer’s miraculous performance, “Remember” tackles both the urgency and the ever-increasing difficulty of honoring those we have lost.
My Rating: See it in the Theater