Even at his most intellectually forbidding, Atom Egoyan has always skewed pretty sleazy. His 1994 masterpiece Exotica is set primarily in a Toronto strip club, and other early films catalog all manner of bizarre sexual dysfunction, albeit at a deliberately, peculiarly stilted remove. All the same, it’s been odd watching him gradually metamorphose from arthouse royalty—The Sweet Hereafter (1997) even nabbed him an Oscar nomination for Best Director—into a straightforward peddler of high-toned trash. Neither the overwrought erotic thriller Chloe (2009) nor the absurd abduction thriller The Captive (2014) made good use of Egoyan’s baser impulses, but he finally gets disreputability right with Remember, an ostensibly solemn Holocaust-inspired drama that gradually reveals itself to be an unapologetic exploitation flick. Good taste gets tossed aside in order to make way for batshit insane confrontations, the most potent of which takes on additional resonance in the midst of Trump’s racist-baiting presidential campaign.
At first, Remember appears to be a depressing portrait of loneliness and neurological decline in an elder-care facility. Zev Gutman (Christopher Plummer, himself still remarkably hale at 86) has recently lost his wife, and is gradually losing his wits to Alzheimer’s disease or something similar; as dementia sets in, he finds himself returning to long-repressed memories of his horrific experience as a prisoner at Auschwitz, which he survived but the rest of his family did not. A fellow survivor at the nursing home, Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau), serves as Zev’s friend, protector, and nagging conscience. After years of digging, Max has found evidence that the Nazi guard who tormented them both is still alive, living in North America under the alias of Rudy Kurlander. But there are a number of people with that name who are the right general age, so Max sends the increasingly addled Zev, who’s far more ambulatory than Max, on a cross-country mission to seek out each one, determine which is the former Nazi, and kill him.
Written by first-time screenwriter Benjamin August, Remember is so patently ludicrous that taking it seriously makes it seem risible at best, actively offensive at worst. Starting with the early scene in which Zev acquires a gun with disturbing ease (despite plainly being not all there), however, Egoyan leans into the absurdity, pushing the flat affect of his early work to a discomfiting new extreme. The trashier the movie gets—and each of Zev’s encounters with a Rudy Kurlander is more lurid than the one before—the more its implausible, button-pushing premise works for it rather than against it. At the same time, Egoyan directs Plummer to play the role of Zev as if it were King Lear, which creates the ideal degree of cognitive dissonance. The film’s magnificently creepy highlight is an extended duet between Plummer and Dean Norris (Hank on Breaking Bad), with the latter as the son of a deceased suspect; imagine last week’s campaign-ad parody on Saturday Night Live, in which smiling Trump supporters in homey environments are revealed to be Klan members and white supremacists, played for mounting dread rather than for pitch-black comedy. Egoyan will not be getting an Oscar nomination for this picture. But after a long creative slump, he may have found a new calling.