‘Remember’
Director:
Atom Egoyan
Stars: Christopher Plummer, Dean Norris 
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

If anyone was going to make a Holocaust movie that’s both lurid and thoughtful, it was going to be Atom Egoyan. The Canadian-Armenian filmmaker has made a career being both. Sometimes he’s flat-out respectful (the Oscar-nominated “The Sweet Hereafter”) or full-on trashy (the lush erotic thriller “Chloe”). But his best film, 1994’s “Exotica,” is a perfect synthesis of both, being an uncommonly gutting exploration of grief and self-deception that largely unfolds in a ridiculously ornate gentlemen’s club where the dancers sway to Leonard Cohen, as you do.

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“Remember,” the latest from this often spotty filmmaker, isn’t another “Exotica,” and it’s made of parts that should have never been mashed together. On one hand, there’s Christopher Plummer, bringing graveness and gravitas to Zev, an Auschwitz survivor and recent widower whose dementia has laid waste to both his recent and long-term memory. He should be the star of Oscar bait. Instead he’s in a thriller in which he travels America, searching for a former Nazi guard in hiding. 

The details of Zev’s mission are beyond ludicrous, and treating the Final Solution to a twist-a-thon, complete with a shocking final reveal, should be only slightly less offensive than, say, the “Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS” series. But Egoyan’s the man for this crazy, questionable job. He susses out his usual obsessions — the way we tell lies to ourselves to soldier on; the gravity of guilt; how tech (or, in this case, lack thereof) transforms us — while not getting in the way of a ripping if silly yarn involving an old timer with conveniently faulty memory and a gun. 

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It’s an easily acquired weapon, too, which is one of the better actual jokes. Egoyan lets the tones mix, allowing his film to frequently turn uncomfortable. It uses discomfort best in the obvious stand-out scene, in which Zev spends time with one of his subject’s lonely, State Trooper son (Dean Norris). There’s a shocking reveal here, too, but Egoyan gives the excellent actors room to let the scene play with the tension between deep empathy and pure trash — our desire to see humanity in everyone and to have our blood lust sated.

To have followed Egoyan’s career is to often be disappointed. After “The Sweet Hereafter,” a filmmaker who seemed to have inhuman control over films that bopped around on a time line lost it. He still liked to withhold key information so as to replicate how the traumatized mind work. His images were still musty and beautiful. They just turned sloppy, even embarrassing; “Devil’s Knot,” his film on the West Memphis Three, was surreally bland, and “The Captive,” from 2013, started off strong before turning campily ridiculous.

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“Remember” is ridiculous, too, but Egoyan has more control. For one thing, it’s the rare Egoyan without a fractured narrative, that tells it’s story from point A to point B. All the flashbacks and noodly structures are still there; they’re just concealed in a story about a man who physically can’t remember things, who’s forced to live in a present haunted by the tragedies of his past. The big climactic reveal should feel cheap, but it winds up opening the film up, justifying its lurid approach and creating a film that asks useful questions, and not only about how we deal with the Holocaust. And yet it was still never less than absorbing, just in a less respectful way. Don’t call it a comeback, because it’s not, but it seems Egoyan may be close to rectifying the dueling extremes that make him a singular, sometimes frustrating artist.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge