Despite Tom McCarthy’s debut novel Remainder being deeply entrenched in ideas about the moving image, it still seemed a significant challenge to translate his elusively brilliant ideas into cinematic form. Fortunately artist turned screenwriter and director Omer Fast has done so very cleverly, effectively translating the novel’s complexity to the screen. The backstory has been extended to provide stronger narrative structure, but the author’s preoccupations with time, the loop of experience and the trauma of technology remain intact.
Tom Sturridge plays the unnamed protagonist who suffers terrible injuries after being hit by a black box falling from the sky. Waking from a coma he embarks on the gruelling process of rehab, relearning the simplest physical actions. (Fast could have perhaps made more of this necessary breakdown of instinctive movement into painstakingly practised action.) He is also the recipient of a huge settlement given by shadowy corporations on the proviso that he never mention or acknowledge his accident again. Hardly able to remember what happened or much about his life anyway, this man has now officially been wiped.
Hints of a previous life provided by possible friends Greg (Ed Speleers) and Catherine (Cush Jumbo) suggest an unpleasant world where human relationships are a means to an end. As our protagonist muses: “People are stuck together but barely communicating.” All that remains are elusive fragments of what we assume are memories, ephemeral moments in time that come to him with increasing intensity. But how can he reassure himself that he exists?
With his new wealth he employs a mysterious logistics man, Naz (Arsher Ali) who helps him recreate what memories he still has to near-perfection. The deadpan humour generated by this quest, which involves ludicrous directions to actors, multiple cat deaths and an old lady constantly frying liver, is perfectly played and reads like a parody of an obsessive Hollywood auteur at work.
When the take is perfect our man experiences near-orgasmic bliss, a jolt out of time, a mini-death. But this fixation soon takes a more sinister turn when the obsessive recreation of a bank robbery related to his accident reveals the inevitable clash between controlled artifice and messy reality.
Shot in harsh greys and whites, Lukas Strebel’s cinematography reflects the world of office blocks, brain scanners and CCTV that we have all come to inhabit. And Sturridge is excellent as the damaged man, both vulnerable and dangerous, his existential doubt leaving him equally unable to recognise the reality of others.
It’s no coincidence that one of the actors employed in his memory trap is a pianist who plays Bach’s The Art of Fugue continuously; a contrapuntal form endlessly looping back into itself, a closed logical system that remains mysterious. Fast’s ambitious film asks if our need for control, our belief in information and technology, renders the world and our experience within it increasingly elliptical.