Cinema has a rich and varied tradition of artists turned filmmakers, all the way from Jean Cocteau to Banksy. Ridley Scott and David Lynch were art school kids before achieving film immortality, and more recently Turner Prize nominee Sam Taylor-Johnson and Turner winner Steve McQueen have conquered the box office and the Oscars with 50 Shades of Grey and 12 Years A Slave respectively. Now it is the turn of acclaimed video artist Omer Fast with his debut feature Remainder, based on the novel by Tom McCarthy. It is, simply, a masterpiece, one that carries the preoccupations and themes of his artistic practice into a superlative and complex thriller, one that demands multiple viewings and suggests a glittering cinematic career ahead.
After waking from a coma caused by falling debris, Tom (Tom Sturridge) is left with catastrophic injuries, millions in compensation and no memory of what happened. What remains are fragmented images from a presumed childhood past, the meaning of which he attempts to uncover through elaborately stage-managed and meticulously detailed re-enactments. As his obsession grows and his restagings become ever more dangerous, the lines between past and present, crime and reconstruction, victim and perpetrator begin to blur while the truth unfolds.
The act of dramatic reconstruction, its paradoxical ability to reveal whilst simultaneously obscuring the truth and its role in investigating the aftermath of trauma are potent themes in Omer Fast’s art. Here they are refashioned into a satisfyingly knotty and cerebral thriller. Drawing on film noir archetypes, the slippage between truth and untruth are perfectly paralleled with a classic unreliable narrator. Like Leonard Shelby in Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Tom attempts to piece together his past in spite of a damaged brain, first through drawings, then models, then overblown full scale productions. The ambiguity of what we witness keeps us guessing. Is Tom recreating the past or planning for the future? Is he an innocent sap or a calculating puppet master? Are the sinister forces pursuing him in fact on the side of the angels? While these questions themselves are enough to pique curiosity, the resolution is fiendishly clever, meaning audiences would be forgiven for immediately wanting to dive back in to watch the whole thing all over again.
Its intelligence is also displayed by Fast’s reflexive use of the film form, another hallmark of his video art work. With the seamless editing from Andrew Bird, the unfolding narrative repeats, varies, corrects and contradicts itself, until it becomes essentially a circular loop, playing with the very fabric of storytelling. And Tom’s grandiose reconstructions increasingly resemble movie sets, which he commands as an obsessive director. He casts performers, complains about uncooperative animals and demands ever-greater realism from his collaborators. His desire for control is almost fetishistic; the sights, sounds and even smells he specifies suggest a sensuous motive, and the morphsuit-clad extras hint at both the comic and the erotic. This metacommentary on the pathology of the directorial impulse is nothing new, with films as diverse as Peeping Tom and Synecdoche, New York among many others suggesting directing is a far from healthy pursuit, but it adds an additional level of intrigue as well as a sense of wry self-deprecating humour.
Fortunately there can be no question of Fast’s own directorial impulses, thanks in part to impeccable work from the cast. Tom Sturridge is excellent as the protagonist, channelling vulnerability, confusion, rage and obsession in what is perhaps the best showcase of his talents to date. Elsewhere Arsher Ali, a frequent fixture of British TV, puts in sterling work as Naz, the fixer, producer, and stage manager of the reconstructions, often questioning, always obeying. While Cush Jumbo’s growing profile makes her relatively minor role as a possible lover/manipulator/femme fatale somewhat thankless, she is always a welcome screen presence, and when combined with Ed Speleers’ sleazy best friend, adds to the layers of mistrust and paranoia. On the technical side Lukas Strebel’s crisp cinematography and music by Schneider TM ensure the film’s intellectual ambitions are matched with atmosphere and panache.
Remainder is many things. A heady, multifaceted and rewarding thriller, a exhilarating continuation of a fine artistic career and a startlingly assured feature film debut from a new and vital cinematic voice. It is a film that once seen will be impossible to forget, and one that will remain in the memory for a long time to come.
Remainder is released in selected UK cinemas and on VOD Friday 24th June 2016. Remainder is available from We Are Colony here www.wearecolony.com/remainder