Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard are superlative in challenging roles as two very damaged people who unexpectedly fall for each other.
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Great actors are defined not just by the performances they give, but by the roles they choose. Some acting jobs are simply harder, more challenging, forcing the thespian to operate outside their comfort zone. It’s not a “star” role. The audience may not even like the character — but find themselves indelibly moved by their plight.
It’s one reason I’m not a fan of Brad Pitt’s Oscar-winning turn in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” All he had to do was show up, take his shirt off, and be the coolest MFer in the room. In other words, act like he’s Brad Pitt.
It’s the acting equivalent of a basketball lay-up.
In “Memory,” Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard are not phoning anything in. It’s a gritty, tough-to-watch drama about two very damaged people. They have an encounter that’s downright disturbing, even squirm-inducing. But unexpectedly they form a bond that eventually becomes a relationship — something neither of them saw coming, and which is rather off-putting to those in their lives.
It was written and directed by Michael Franco, who made the very well-regarded “Sundown” a couple of years ago, although I wasn’t as high on it as others. This to me is a much more interesting and narratively fleshed out piece. It’s one of the best films I saw in 2023.
And yet, I’ll admit I almost turned it off at one point. That’s because it can be emotionally raw and invasive. Chastain and Sarsgaard don’t hide anything or take any pains to make their characters more approachable. They’re just people, very screwed up ones, and the actors force us to accept them at face value. To my surprise, I found these characters getting under my skin.
(Also, I’ve never walked out of a movie, whether watching it in a theater or on streaming screener, as with this one.)
Sylvia (Chastain) is clearly someone who has her defenses up at all times. A recovering alcoholic, she is cajoled by her sister, Olivia (Merritt Wever), into attending their high school reunion. While there she is approached by Saul (Sarsgaard), a smiling, shy man. Disturbed by his attention she leaves the party, and is terrified when Saul follows her home.
She eventually learns that Saul has a form of early dementia that makes it difficult for him to form new memories, and often leaves him easily confused. She is invited by Saul’s brother, Isaac (Josh Charles), to their posh brownstone to thank her for her help. Eventually she agrees to become Saul’s watcher during the daytime. It’s good money and she needs it as the single mother of a teen girl, Anna (Brooke Timber).
Sylvia has a lot of trauma in her past. Some of it involves an incident in high school she thinks Saul was involved in, though later the veracity of that is brought into question. She is also severely estranged from her mother (Jessica Harper), who seems nice enough and is desperate to have a relationship with her daughter and granddaughter again. As we’ll see, Sylvia’s reasons are not unfounded.
Saul is more pleasant externally, but his happy demeanor is a mask he wears to cover up his mental illness. He tries to ‘pass’ as normal, but then he’ll do things that cross a line he doesn’t seem to know is there. One involves some behavior with Anna that is traumatizing without seemingly any malicious intent.
As their bond grows more intimate, it is clearly bothersome to Isaac and to Sylvia’s family as well. Saul’s family members think she is just trying to horn in on their wealth and privilege. (Though the contours of that are more complex than initially presented). Those close to Sylvia can’t believe she’d involve herself with a man with severe mental health issues.
And yet, when they’re allowed space and time to just be with each other, it works. Saul’s placid passiveness is the perfect foil for Sylvia’s armored-up passive-aggressiveness.
These are two absolutely marvelous performances that deserve awards attention. Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard eschew all of the movie star shortcuts and vanity-fluffing. They’ve dug very deep into the hard earth, and know these characters down to their bones.
“Memory” is a hard diamond of a movie, a gem that’s sharp, stark and uncompromising.