The album cover art of Joe Henry’s 2001 release Scar spotlights a man’s chest with his shirt open and a hand caressing the flesh just beneath a carefully penned tattoo that reads, “AMOR.” It is, as intoned on the title track of the album, “a mark, so fine, but still a scar.”
The song opens with a poetic query — “What does this look like to you?/A mark so fine, you barely see/You have one just like it, too/A twisting vine, a mark so fine,” — reminiscent of Atom Egoyan’s film Remember, a solemn exploration of purpose and a journey of discovery for Zev Guttman (Christopher Plummer), a recently widowed man suffering from dementia. Zev has a mark — a tattoo from Auschwitz — and, soon, a mission from Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau), a fellow nursing home resident. Max slips Zev a letter outlining a step-by-step plan to track down a man believed to be a Nazi named Rudy Kurlander, living under the name of a deceased Jew. Kurlander, Max reminds Zev, is the man who killed their families in the camp.
Once he takes to the road, Zev clings to the letter like a lifeline, but the numbered tattoo on his forearm — his “mark so fine” — becomes an undeniable symbol, the one thing that he can truly believe in, which starts to define him. We saw this also in Christopher Nolan’s twisted and almost impossibly bent narrative Memento. Words or symbols on the flesh served as proof, a testament of fact, when all else could be little more than fiction.
Leonard (Guy Pearce) was an insurance investigator, a dogged man driven by details who could not believe the story of Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), a man who lost his short-term memory and wound up trapped inside a tragically endless loop. When Leonard falls prey to the same disorder after a blow to the head, he seeks through obsessive focus to not succumb as Jankis did, and he creates a careful regimen to provide order in the chaos of mental confusion.
He imprints a trail of tattooed clues on his body to lead him to the person who killed his wife and fractured his mind.
Zev’s odyssey is more straightforward than Leonard’s in some ways, because Zev has all of the pieces laid out for him by Max, who is available to offer improvised assistance along the way. The only stumbling block involves the fact that he is tracking four men (all using the name Rudy Kurlander) rather than one, and in a nod to the careful machinations of plotting, Zev must encounter each man in order. Due to age and the effects of dementia, though, Zev proves to be a shuffling plodder, free from hurrying and surprisingly difficult to distract. No matter what occurs along the journey, he has Max’s letter, which resets Zev any time he wanders off course.
Borrowing from another one of Henry’s Scar tracks, “Stop,” Zev dares us, “Don’t tell me to stop/Tell the rain not to drop/Tell the wind not to blow/’Cause you said so.” It is a song for lovers, more of an idealized romantic expression, but darkness seeps into later stanzas: “Tell the bed not to lay/Like the mouth of a grave/Not to stare up at me/Like a calf on its knees.” Suddenly, we are back with Zev and his grim task. Each Rudy Kurlander stares up at him, calves waiting to be slaughtered or offered salvation.
The speculative pairing of Egoyan and Henry makes a certain stylistic sense because Egoyan, over the course of his career (The Adjuster, The Sweet Hereafter), has adhered to a stark and structured format that lends itself to comparisons with songwriting (in the singer-songwriter mold versus the catchy ease of Pop song craft), and Henry operates in a realm just slightly removed from mere words on the page waiting to be sung. His narratives remix the poetry of verse with the dark brooding of everyday noir. He allows us to see the characters and the world of his songs through his eyes and voice.
And it is all the more fascinating to see Zev through the twin lens of Egoyan and Henry now. His sad and twisting quest leaves quite the mark on him, and us. As he nears the end, we return to “Scar” — “He whistles but cannot sing/It’s an awful tune but very soon.”
For the viewer immersed in Remember, Henry’s lyric links us ever moreso to Zev. “I find that I am whistling, too/And your window is like a star/That I sit beneath like a vagabond/Who wears his fear just like a scar.” By journey’s conclusion, we bear the mark, too. (Opens Friday) (R) Grade: A