Memory is a difficult thing for cinema to dissect. It’s the most opaque, internal process we experience as humans, and therefore wholly unsuited to a medium as visual as film. Countless books that rely on internal monologue and flashbacks have inevitably stripped that aspect out when adapting for the screen. But because it’s such a complex thing to depict, the rewards are only greater when an artist comes along and brings clarity to the world of memory.
Remainder, directed by Omer Fast and adapted from Tom McCarthy’s acclaimed novel, is one such film, though perhaps clarity is the wrong thing to praise it for. In this playful and engrossing headscratcher, Tom (Tom Sturridge) suffers a crushing blow to the head from a falling piece of aeroplane debris in a freak accident. In the aftermath of this trauma he is left to rebuild his memory and make sense of what has happened to him.
This is a growing niche in film, not quite popular enough to be called a subgenre, but certainly intriguing enough to prompt several other ingenious films on similar themes. Memento (dir. Christopher Nolan) and Trance (dir. Danny Boyle) are almost identical to Remainder in topic, though fascinatingly, each has a very different tone, form and visual style. One thing they have in common is a dedication to exploring memory and trauma, and the way the former reacts to the latter.
In all three films, the leads’ memories are affected by a violent trauma that changes their lives. In Memento, Leonard (Guy Pearce) suffers from anterograde amnesia (aka short-term memory loss), a condition inflicted after an attack where Leonard’s wife was raped and killed, which limits his short-term memory to about five minutes. In Trance, Simon (James McAvoy) is working an inside job on the theft of a valuable painting, but loses all memory of what he did with the artwork after suffering a blow to the head during the robbery. In Remainder, the aeroplane debris crashes into Tom as he is quite possibly also taking part in a robbery of some sort.
Aside from the physical blows that knock the trio’s memories out of place, there is also a strong implication that none of these people want to remember what happened to them before their accidents. The trauma may have been physical, but it has a mental toll. In Memento, we eventually learn that Leonard probably got his revenge and killed the real murderer of his wife a year ago – though like all of these films, nothing is ever definite enough to unequivocally state this as fact. Leonard is semi-intentionally manipulating his broken five-minute memory to keep this quest open in his mind and give him a purpose in life. Leonard can’t remember his life after the attack properly, but he doesn’t want to remember it either.
A similar suggestion is made in Trance, as hypnotist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) is tasked with conjuring up Simon’s lost memories to discover the painting’s location. Just like in Memento it’s revealed that our hero, a man who initially seemed sympathetic, if a little unscrupulous, is really a dangerous criminal. Not only is Simon a thief, but he actually knew Elizabeth before the accident. They were in an intense relationship, which ended when Simon became abusive. The robbery wasn’t the first time that his memories had been destroyed; Elizabeth had actually erased them months before to protect herself, as she feared for her life under Simon’s domestic abuse.
While the reliance on hypnosis turns Trance into a pulpy thriller, slightly less credible than Memento’s five-minute memory, it shares the same idea at heart. These memories aren’t forgotten but repressed. In Leonard’s case it’s to leave his wife’s murder unresolved and so give purpose to his life. In Trance, the memories are repressed by a third party, Elizabeth, in order to protect herself. Remainder takes a slightly different tack in that Tom’s memories seem to be truly lost rather than just hidden. What is interesting is his approach to rediscovering them.
Tom spends the generous compensation money he receives on recreating locations and events that haunt his memory until he ends up with a fake bank vault and a team of actors playing robbers. They simulate the robbery of the bank again and again and again, until Tom is happy (though he never is). As the loop slowly begins to reveal itself and then close, there’s a suggestion that this recreated event is in fact the staging of a memory, quite possibly the memory that preceded his accident.
In this respect, Remainder is reminiscent of Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece Synecdoche, New York, which features Caden Cotard (the magnificent Philip Seymour Hoffman) as a theatre director who tries to depict his own life via a sprawling theatre installation. It soon becomes the size of a city and develops layer upon layer of performance, with an actor playing Caden, who himself is played by another actor, and him by another actor, and so on. Both films show a certain struggle for perfection, a struggle that’s all the more futile in Remainder as it’s based on Tom’s unreliable memories of life before the accident.
All of these films show that we’re haunted by our memories. They replay again and again – the good and the bad. It makes sense that films so obsessed with memory have such a circular, repetitive structure. But the one thing all three films seem to agree on is that repeating memory, particularly traumatic memory, is the only way to overcome it. By living through the trauma repeatedly – like Leonard, avenging his wife ad infinitum; like Simon, experiencing vivid flashbacks of his accident; like Tom, recreating his world from before the accident – you can understand it, make it less unfamiliar and less scary. Eventually, you can master it.