Pain and trauma permeate Michel Franco’s new drama “Memory,” about two lost souls who find surprising comfort in one another. Both Jessica Chastain’s Sylvia and Peter Sarsgaard’s Saul are hostage to their own minds, though in vastly different ways. Hers haunts her. His is failing rapidly. And neither is entirely trustworthy.
“Memory” starts as a seemingly standard issue “damaged person” movie, introducing Chastain’s Sylvia celebrating 12 years of sobriety at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that her 12-year-old attends with her. But there are layers to this dramatic mystery, compounded with unreliable narrators and moral gray areas. Before you know it, the film morphs from something familiar into something altogether unexpected.
Though it is not easily categorizable, “Memory” is a thoughtful journey featuring very fine performances from both Chastain and Sarsgaard, who was rewarded with the best actor prize from the Venice Film Festival last fall. While there are moments of levity to break up the anguish, it could also come with a laundry list of trigger warnings as it explores difficult subjects from sexual abuse to mental illness in pretty unsatisfactory ways. Perhaps it’s a good thing that the holidays are over because this is not one to watch with the family, especially if they’re harboring secrets of their own that have evolved into generational trauma.
The film binds you at first to Sylvia, a social worker and single mother who is suspicious of everything and everyone. She always seems ready to bolt for safety and survival. She lives by a strict routine: Walking her daughter, Anna (Brooke Timber), to school, going to work at an adult day care and her AA meetings. Home is a fortress: As soon as she steps into her downtrodden apartment, she’s triple locking her door and punching in the security code to arm the place.
Even knowing her this little, it’s surprising that her younger sister Olivia (Merritt Wever) is able to convince her to tag along to a high school reunion kind of event early in the film. The decision seems even more unfathomable when you learn additional details about Sylvia’s school years, but it’s clear that she is uncomfortable and unhappy at the event, which she soon leaves.
For a moment, you wonder if perhaps her fears and anxieties are warranted as she realizes that night that a man is following her home, first down the street, then onto the same subway car, then off at the same spot, right to her doorstep. It is like a nightmare as she fumbles for her keys. You hold your breath until she’s made it inside. Hours later, the man is still there outside, looking up at her. Is he imagined? A dream? An ex? A stranger?
The man in question is Saul, who she finds out is suffering from early onset dementia. He won’t remember that he followed her home or why but he will remember her for whatever reason. His brother, Isaac (Josh Charles), asks if Sylvia would want to work for them as a companion to Saul.
And Saul and Sylvia develop a deep bond with one another that goes beyond professional caretaker boundaries. Both are damaged and longing for connection and their friendship is like a balm, until it evolves into something else. Without going into too many details, this relationship presents an ethical quandary that the movie does not seem willing to engage with in any serious way, making “Memory” feel underdeveloped at best. At worst, it’s not even sure what it’s trying to say. This movie has one of those endings that presents itself as happy but leaves you with a lingering feeling of dread and worry for all involved.
Movies can be empathy machines and also a form of therapy, giving audiences permission to step into a stranger’s shoes and feel things that otherwise might seem too difficult, too transgressive, too much.
Sarsgaard does a beautiful job of playing this man who has been dealt an awful card, whose body still works but whose mind is untrustworthy. His isn’t the only one: Sylvia also has flawed recall, as do members of her family, like her compartmentalizing mother played brilliantly by Jessica Harper. It all compounds into misery, secrets and shame.
Memory may be imperfect, this movie reminds us, but feelings rarely are.
“Memory” — 2½ stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: R (nudity, some sexual content, language)
Running time: 110 minutes
How to watch: In theaters Jan. 5