Based on a mind-bending cult novel, Remainder is one of the more arrestingly weird world premieres at this year’s London Film Festival. Riffing obsessively on philosophical questions of repetition, replication and memory, author Tom McCarthy‘s experimental debut became a word-of-mouth sensation when it was published a decade ago. Lightly remixed by the Israeli-born video artist Omer Fast, the book becomes a more conventional psycho-thriller on the surface, but this British-German co-production ultimately proves a more cryptic trip into the Twilight Zone.
Remainder inevitably exhibits some of the limitations that afflict most low-budget debut features. But much like the novel which inspired it, Fast’s adaptation has the potential to transcend its arty roots and attract a broader audience among fans of more highbrow genre thrillers. The good looks and modest marquee appeal of Tom Sturridge (Far From The Madding Crowd) may help its commercial prospects. Likewise the stylistic and thematic echoes of modern cult classics including Memento, Fight Club and Charlie Kaufman‘s Synecdoche, New York. Soda Pictures have already lined up a U.K. theatrical release.
The nameless hero (Sturridge) is a young Londoner left both mentally and physically shattered after a mysterious accident in which he was struck by heavy debris falling from high above. As he struggles to recover, he accepts an offer from the company responsible to pay him almost $10 million if he drops all legal charges and never mentions the accident again. Suddenly very rich, he uses this fortune to indulge his new obsession with re-staging vividly recalled events in forensic detail. Hiring well-connected fixer Naz (Arsher Ali) as his project manager, he buys an entire London apartment block and recruits people to play his neighbors, paying them to replay the same mundane tasks on a constant loop. Even the rooftop cats come from central casting.
It is never entirely clear whether these large-scale theatrical reenactments are based on real memories, or dreams, or even tricks of the mind. But as our unreliable narrator grows ever more ambitious and dictatorial, he re-stages a violent shooting in his neighborhood, then replicates a full-scale bank robbery on a giant Kaufman-esque stage set immaculately dressed like a real London street. As these fake events become more realistic, reality itself begins to fray at the edges, with scenes and characters and dialogue lines looped through the story as recurring motifs. “We’ve had this conversation before, don’t you remember…?”
Fast is an ideal choice to adapt Remainder. Much of his video artwork is concerned with the re-staging of traumatic events, the mediation of memory and the blurring of cinema with reality. His screenplay is broadly faithful but not overly reverent to McCarthy, shedding some superfluous subplots while flexing extra narrative muscle. Amping up the sex and violence, he also adds an American femme fatale (Cush Jumbo) and a pair of hard-knuckled detectives, adroitly nodding to film-noir thriller tropes without sacrificing the novel’s essential WTF weirdness. Fast also ends on a pleasingly symmetrical twist which was not in the book, but which chimes well with its loopy rhythms.
For an artist-directed movie, Remainder is disappointingly low on visual panache, painting London in drab and familiar tones, mostly on a jittery hand-held camera. That said, Fast has a good eye for sinister imagery, especially the nightmarish otherness of blurred faces and multicolored all-over body stockings. Sturridge’s sulky anti-hero is less of a sociopath than in the novel, but still a callous narcissist, most obviously in his haughty dealings with his hired extras. The film-makers are clearly banking more on suspense than empathy to keep viewers in their seats.
With astute marketing, Remainder could snag both the art-gallery crowd and more cerebral genre fanboys. Though never quite as gripping, dark or funny as it might have been, this is still an intelligent take on McCarthy’s experimental novel, fileting the text without losing the texture. German electronic composer Schneider TM’s spare, discordant, disquieting score deepens the slow-building awareness that we are not in Kansas any more.
Production companies: Tigerlily Films, Amusement Park
Cast: Tom Sturridge, Cush Jumbo, Ed Speleers, Arsher Ali
Director, screenwriter: Omer Fast
Producers: Natasha Dack, Malte Grunert
Cinematographer: Lukas Strebel
Editor: Andrew Bird
Music: Schneider TM
Sales company: Match Factory, Cologne
No rating, 97 minutes