Memory is a movie about two people who are drawn to each other by need. Sylvia suffered devastating trauma when she was a child, that has haunted her ever since. She is the protective mother of a loving young daughter, has a trusting relationship with her sister and is deliberately estranged from her mother. Saul’s mind is deteriorating due to dementia. He lives with a brother whose concern for him takes the form of Saul being treated like a child. Saul and Sylvia meet when he follows her home from their high school reunion. He has no idea why he does this; she only thinks she knows.
What follows is sad, intimate, very well-acted, with a few powerful moments. However, as emotionally charged as the situation is, it feels like the screenplay doesn’t always know what its purpose is. Besides Sylvia’s daughter, all of the supporting characters are plot devices, an unfortunate limitation which prevents the story from coming off as organic. Memory (99 minutes, without the end credits) is an interesting movie that doesn’t have as much to say about its subject matter as it first seems.
That subject is, of course, memory. Saul is losing his and Sylvia’s life has been controlled by hers. What they find in each other is someone who doesn’t serve as a constant reminder of their respective pain. They can just enjoy the company. There are certainly complications to this friendship, almost entirely coming from their families. That material turns out to be largely superfluous because the movie only uses it to give these two nobody else they can talk to.
Part of the issue is how Memory handles Saul. This is a man who is keenly aware of his disease and what that means for his present/future. He doesn’t want to live as a prisoner of his dementia or his brother, as well-meaning as his brother’s intentions might be. Peter Sarsgaard plays him as a sweet guy who exists in the moment, because that’s all he has left. The scenes focusing on Saul and Sylvia spending time together are the strongest in the movie. Otherwise, Saul is a sadly thin character. There is very little sense of who he is outside of this new relationship. It can be hard to fully empathize with someone when the writing doesn’t truly engage with what he is experiencing. Sarsgaard is good, but he is capable of biting off a whole lot more than this screenplay gives him to chew on.
As Sylvia, Jessica Chastain is given the far meatier role. She gets to play the flaws, fears and anger that drive the plot. She is so effective as a woman who has lived her entire adulthood with a shield around her (one she has extended to cover her daughter), who finds an unexpected reason to lower it. She wears her emotions on her sleeve. Chastain is talented enough to overcome the movie treating her more as a victim/trauma survivor than as an individual.
Memory has plenty to recommend it, even if the script doesn’t feel delicate or honest enough to do justice to the material. Chastain, Sarsgaard and Brooke Timber (as Sylvia’s daughter, Anna) are really good and there are a few scenes that show the challenging production this could have been. Writer/Director Michel Franco is respectful of these characters and mostly stays away from melodrama (except for a late confrontation that is both harrowing and flat). It is an intriguing adult drama that doesn’t quite go deep enough into the tough questions it raises.
3¼ out of 5
Jessica Chastain as Sylvia
Peter Sarsgaard as Saul
Brooke Timber as Anna
Merritt Wever as Olivia
Josh Charles as Isaac
Written/Directed by Michel Franco