Sometimes a seemingly standard film takes a left-turn and, for better or worse, turns into something a bit odder than expected. Remainder does that, then gets bored with its quirky new trajectory so takes a few extra left-turns for good measure.
Filled from the beginning with stock London characters and hinging itself on the world’s most exhausted plot engine, the amnesia mystery, the film’s first stab at saving itself from drudgery is its supernatural elements. For all that its tone suggests the kind of bloodless, clockwork storytelling of Christopher Nolan’s Memento (inevitably the main starting reference point), it loads its premise with enough oddness to suggest that something more is going on.
That doesn’t necessarily seem like a good thing as Remainder’s first half hour trundles on. A version of Memento that trades in careful plotting for unfocused, vaguely supernatural storytelling is just a worse version of Memento, and the faux-literary opening monologue instantly feels like shaky ground to build a thoughtful story on. Except the film literally is literary, based on the acclaimed debut novel of Booker shortlisted author Tom McCarthy. Its success is based on whether or not it winds up making any coherent thematic points through its oddities, and whether it can use that amnesia plotting in any subversively decent way, and surprisingly it does.
Remainder’s somewhat unpromising beginning involves a man (Tom, played by Tom Sturridge) being hit by what looks like a falling piece of fancy London roofing. He wakes up without any memory, and is released from hospital despite being pretty blatantly unable to look after himself, barely able to walk properly and seemingly prone to fits. There is some vaguely worded oddness about him being legally dead, and an ominous confidentiality agreement he signs to be awarded several million pounds in nebulous “compensation”.
The classic tactic of keeping the audience as ungrounded as the amnesiac protagonist is almost obnoxiously present, and what little dialogue Tom is allowed seems frustratingly smug. (On learning he is to become a multi-millionaire: “Why eight and a half million? Why not just eight or nine?”) Then watching Sturridge emote what amounts to a confused question mark in scene after scene, while have repeating flashes of vague memory and living a life that screams get-back-to-the-hospital, begins to grow frustrating until the film’s next sudden change.
A friend asks if he is becoming “one of those rich eccentrics”, and Tom proceeds to prove him right to absurd levels. As he grows increasingly fixated on replicating the scenes in his mind, the plot grows unmistakeably Charlie Kaufman-esque and the timeline becomes fuzzy. At this point it turns into something much more interesting, although it does so abruptly enough to risk completely alienating people while keeping a few too many balls in the air at once.
Sturridge, as almost the only actor whose performance matters, does a better job at this arrogantly eccentric (but still almost completely adrift from the world) version of his character. Through the dense plotting it is obvious he is due for some kind of fall, and a few times the film is effectively visceral in holding on real physical and emotional pain. By the climactic scene Tom is easy to hate, fascinating, and faintly sad, and that last feeling is Sturridge’s greatest achievement when often all he has to work with are pauses and little self-satisfied grins.
In true amnesia movie style, Remainder loops back on itself. Eventually it makes good on its muddled timeline and takes enough left turns that it seems to return back where it starts, but right then a lot of its thematic ambitions fall into place. Even the opening monologue feels justified by the end.
Following it down its rabbit holes, from thriller to slow arthouse think-piece to bizarre set piece cinema and back again, there is a lot to enjoy. The wonderfully annoying lawyer at the film’s beginning, the way it lets actors have outsized emotional scenes, the way the cinematography reflects physical stresses like Tom’s public fit, are all unexpected pleasures and effective pieces of entertainment in the midst of a film that looks like it is spinning off the rails. And once it has spun out for long enough, it curves back in on itself instead.
This is a better film by its closing credits than it was half an hour before, and when a story takes the kinds of seemingly fruitless roads this one does, that is a no small achievement.
Dir: Omer Fast
Scr: Omer Fast
Cast: Tom Sturridge, Cush Jumbo, Ed Speelers
Prd: Natasha Dack, Malte Grunert
DOP: Lukas Strebel
Country: UK, Germany
Runtime: 103 minutes
Remainder is in UK cinemas from 24 June