I’m not familiar with Tom McCarthy’s novel, on which this film is based, but I suspect first-time director Omer Fast shed a fair amount of extraneous information when working on the screenplay. In its cinematic guise Remainder is a sparse puzzle thriller, a film that concentrates on drawing the viewer slowly into an infernal loop, employing the kind of surprise/strange ending that manages to shed some light on certain aspects of the narrative that were unclear while also presenting the viewer with a series of new questions to ponder.
Tom Sturridge stars as an unnamed man who we first encounter leaving a large glass building in central London, dragging a bag behind him. He looks panicked, and catches the eye of a woman (Cush Jumbo) who appears to be following him. Suddenly a pile of debris falls from the sky above and hits him, leaving him in a coma. Fast forward several months and the man wakes up to find that a lawyer has been working on his behalf, and that he is due a large settlement fee as a result of the accident; it’s hush money from the owners of the building in question, though, and the condition upon receipt is that he never discusses what happened to him. The man accepts the money, but he struggles to adapt to normal life after discharging himself from the hospital: he is unsteady on his feet, he sees confusing images and he is wary of the people who claim to know him, including an old friend and two men who say that they are police officers. As his frustration increases he resolves to fill in some of the gaps in his memory.
Though Remainder is a more unsettling film, there are shades of Christopher Nolan’s Memento here: both keep their audiences confused and in the dark for the most part, while both are also concerned with memory loss, their protagonists relying on the repetition of certain actions to help them remember key facts. However, during the second act Remainder takes a turn for the weird, and I suppose a closer cousin from this point on would be Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (in fact at the time of release of Synecdoche Kaufman had to issue a statement saying that any resemblance between his film and McCarthy’s novel was purely coincidental). Without wishing to give too much away the man begins to spend vast sums of money employing a fixer (Arsher Ali) to help him create a version of the apartment building he used to live in prior to the accident, employing actors to play his neighbours, and accurately stage-managing their performances so that certain actions, appearances, sounds and smells are identical to the way that he remembers them. The man’s memory begins to improve, slowly, but where is this leading him?
There are several shots here in which the protagonist clears misted-up windows, and one scene at a telephone box in which his hands trace a pattern that has been scratched on to glass, which may or may not be significant, depending on your reading of the film. It’s clear that a second viewing will be rewarding, full of significant-but-small moments that help to illuminate the story. Remainder is a clever, well-planned film, although it lacks the high quality editing that helped to make Memento such an invigorating head-spinner (not that the editing’s bad here, I hasten to add). Sadly some members of the supporting cast suffer as a result of their characters being severely underwritten, too, though the clear intention is to keep the focus on Sturridge’s soft-spoken, dogged and apparently-ruthless main character. This individual is a perplexed and increasingly angry man who can’t really turn to anyone close or familiar for help, and Sturridge plays the part well, creating an enigmatic protagonist who you’re never quite sure about; there are few deliberate attempts here to engender sympathy for him, despite the accident and subsequent hospital stay he endures, and despite the fact he’s the nearest thing the film has to a ‘hero’.
Remainder also features impressive, minimalist production design by Adrian Smith, which – aside from a number of scenes shot on a street corner in Brixton – tends to reduce central London to a kind of characterless, corporate hell-hole; there’s something off-kilter about it, as if there’s a lack of specific detail on the streets and in the interior spaces, which contrasts directly with the protagonist’s obsessive attention to detail as he stages his own personal reconstructions. It also fits perfectly with some of the ideas of the film that gradually become prominent during the final act, which suggest or explain the fate of the protagonist. Fast’s screenplay only ever drip feeds information, and leaves plenty of room for interpretation, but if you’re fine with being all at sea the film eventually rewards patient viewers with answers to some of the questions, and there’s a well-judged pay-off to boot. This is an intelligent, well-paced and intriguing debut feature.
Directed by: Omer Fast.
Written by: Omer Fast. Based on Remainder by Tom McCarthy.
Starring: Tom Sturridge, Cush Jumbo, Ed Speelers, Arsher Ali, Shaun Prendergrast, Laurence Spellman.
Cinematography: Lukas Strebel.
Editing: Andrew Bird.
Running Time: 103 minutes.