If this movie's hitman could sing, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart doubts "Thanks for the Memories" would be one of his favorite melodies.
"Even if we're not friends, we have something in common. Grief."
The detectives here may be Belgian, but unlike the cases of famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, there's nothing cozy about this thriller that follows a hitman's attempt to avenge a child's murder. It comes from the pages of a thriller by novelist Jef Geeraerts.
Facts of the Case
The movie opens with dim, blurry lights, the sort that, if you're seeing them while driving, tell you it's time to pull over to rest and have a cup of coffee. When the indistinct lights become clearer, we see that they're guiding a train along its track. Next we see a house by the tracks, where the lights of the train illuminate a dirty deal…
Inside the house, a nervous man is making a deal for the services of child prostitute Bieke with the girl's father. When the deal's done, he tells the girl he just wants to chat, but she doesn't believe him—until she accidentally notices he's wired for sound. Turns out that Freddy Verstyft (Werner de Smedt, Everybody's Famous) is an undercover cop trying to get the goods on the father. As his backup rushes into the room, Freddy finds himself in a standoff with the unloving dad, who's threatening to blow his daughter's brains out. Freddy rescues the girl, but has to kill the father when the man pulls a knife.
"One less asshole, and the girl's safe," his superior, Chief Inspector Eric Vincke (Koen De Bouw, Yuppies), assures him.
Cut to hitman Angelo Ledda (Jan Decleir, Molokai: The Story of Father Damien), who's coming in on the train from Marseilles to take on a contract. When he gets to the hotel, Ledda writes down information on his arm, and we see that there's more writing there. The memory of a critic is calling up visions of Guy Pearce's tattoos in Memento and sensing there's more to this movie than immediately meets the eye. His client also sees something wrong. "He looks like he's been living under a tram for two years," the man tells an unseen person on the other end of his cell phone. The original Belgian title, De Zaak Alzheimer or The Alzheimer's Case, explains it better—Alzheimer's disease.
Ledda takes the job and quickly dispatches his first client without leaving a trace, taking with him one of those mysterious parcels of MacGuffin that always factor into thrillers. It's so perfect that Eric and Freddy figure the guy's just gone off with his mistress. Things are going smoothly until Ledda gets close enough to realize that the next target's a young girl—Bieke. He flees the scene without making the hit, and tells his client the deal's off. "Nobody will do it," Ledda says.
That night, as Ledda's sleeping in his hotel room after a tryst with a grown-up hooker, the hitman has nightmares in which he carries out the hit. When he awakens, he's not sure whether he was in the room all night with the hooker—or out on assignment. As he's leaving, the picture becomes clearer, since the real killer's lying in wait for Ledda and the hooker. Since it's not so easy to kill a professional hitman, Ledda's waiting for Eric and Freddy so he can tell them that he can identify the dead man as Angelo Ledda. Naturally.
The ruse doesn't last long, and when bodies keep turning up, Eric and Freddy notice that the killer's using the same modus operandi as Bieke's killer, but a different caliber of bullets. It's not long before they've figured out that Ledda's on a mission to avenge the girl's death. Soon they get a call from the hitman who's doing their job for them…
The plot here may be a standard MacGuffin chase, but Director Eric Van Looy (Yuppies) reveals the disintegration of Ledda's mind with fragmented scenes, full of quick jumps and shifts in angle to reflect the missing pieces in Ledda's memory, augmented by jumbled sounds and an eerie green light bathing everything. That eerie green light becomes a common thread, appearing in action scenes later in the movie to visually tie everything together. It may be jumping the gun, but I'll mention here that the transfer picks up the neon colors of nighttime Antwerp excellently. While things move fast in Ledda's mind as he struggles with Alzheimer's disease, elsewhere the movie often moves at a deliberate pace to build tension. He also uses the fragments to build a link between Ledda and Eric, who's also haunted by Bieke's death.
The director's work is well augmented by the performances. As Ledda, Decleir uses small gestures to show that he's full of doubt, fear, and guilt, but still competent enough to turn the tables on a would-be assassin, while staying one step ahead of both the police and the sleazeballs in high places who'd like to stop him before he "makes it explode." I also liked the intense performance of De Bouw as Eric, who's building a reluctant admiration for Ledda even after the hitman kills a fellow officer. A lighter, likeable performance is delivered by De Smedt as Freddy, who nearly crashes into a speeding BMW because he's juggling a Coke and an eclair while driving, and is tempted sexually by a beautiful widow as he questions her about her husband's death. He's quirky, yes; but not a joke.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track in Dutch expertly mixes the ambient noises of trains and seagulls with the dialogue and score for an atmospheric effect that seems realistic (even noting, as IMDb does, that the guns are too loud) yet heightens tension.
A note on the extras, a "Behind the Scenes" feature and a look at the movie's premiere at Film Festival Gent: The mix of visuals, music, and on-screen captions in both English and Dutch is an entertaining presentation, but it doesn't provide that much vital information.
The Memory of a Killer was an official Belgian entry in the Academy Awards in 2003, and an official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival in 2004. Among its other honors, it took home the 2003 audience award at the Flanders International Film Festival.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A couple of violent moments had me wincing (the ratings board wasn't overzealous in giving this one an R for violence, sexuality, and nudity) and there's a pervasive creepiness to the bad (or rather, worst) guys here. Despite mesmerizing performances, this one won't be everyone's cup of tea.
The Memory of a Killer is stylish, violent, and chilling—just like Angelo Ledda. Although it starts out looking like a Memento clone, the movie finds its own, more human voice as it explores the relationship between Eric and Ledda, while staying close enough to the oddball familiar to please fans of Christopher Nolan's stylish thrillers.
One more thing, as Lt. Columbo used to say. When you see this movie, pay attention. This is by no means a conventional whodunit, but there's a small puzzle here to follow if you're not distracted by the character drama.
Not guilty. This movie will linger in the memory of a viewer.
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• Behind the Scenes of The Memory of a Killer
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