How is it that even when working within the limits of a genre, European filmmakers are able to avoid the clichés that ensnare their American counterparts? On its surface, Belgian filmmaker Erik Van Looy's clever noir The Memory of a Killer is your basic cop-versus-antihero throwdown, but our criminal with a ventricle of gold can only be so effective due to the opening strains of Alzheimer's disease.
And with They Came Back, a creepy and intriguing French meditation on the repercussions of 13,000 undead (and unemployed) townspeople suddenly emerging from the local cemetery, filmmaker Robin Campillo takes the zombie flick, turns it on its ear, and then shivs it right in the conscience.
They Came Back opens with the aforementioned graveyard exodus, which is soon followed by a town meeting to decide what to do about this massive influx of former citizens beyond study them. The returnees don't seem to want to feast on brain, and those they left behind are, for the most part, thrilled to see them again.
Naturally, however, there is something a little off about the once dead: They're eerily calm and rather disoriented, and the fact that their most recent position was daisy pusher-upper hinders their desirability in the job market ("The incapacity of the dead to innovate excludes them from all positions of responsibility").
The returnees also have trouble sleeping and often congregate during the night for reasons unclear, and it's not long before loved ones grow uneasy ("I can't stand her sweet smile anymore. She scares me"). The beautifully shot They Came Back actually evokes another European genre-buster, Truly Madly Deeply: Getting a little more time with the dearly departed sounds great on paper, but you've changed, they've really changed, and all the love in the world can't mask the fact that it's time to let go.
The Memory of a Killer stars Jan Decleir, arguably Belgium's most accomplished actor --- and probably best known stateside for his role in the 1997 Oscar winner Character --- as Angelo Ledda, a hard-boiled contract killer. Ledda's chosen vocation is made more difficult by the early stages of Alzheimer's, as well as the fact that he's taken it upon himself to throw in a few freebies to settle a moral score.
It's during this quest that Ledda, sporting a mug that his employer describes as having lived under a streetcar for a couple years, starts tangling with cerebral cop Vincke (Koen De Bouw), who grows to warily respect Ledda but can't condone his methods of justice. Vincke is especially curious about Ledda's actions because of their relation to his previous investigation involving a pre-teen prostitute, but Vincke's hotheaded sidekick Verstuyft (Werner De Smedt) has no patience for what he considers to be his partner's squandering of golden opportunities to capture the crafty yet slowly deteriorating Ledda.
Deft camerawork and interesting image manipulation make Memory an ocular treat, even when the plot seems to be getting a little too convoluted. It's tricky to elicit sympathy for a man who is basically a cold-blooded murderer, but DeCleir's performance as the damaged hitman is as good as any film work you'll see this year.
Though he's wearing himself out to elude the good guys who want him stopped and the bad guys who want him dead, he's accepted the fact that his life is beginning its denouement. This makes him fearless.
Memory obviously invites superficial comparisons to the overrated Memento, since both films feature main characters forced to jot important information on their forearms, and Van Looy cops to having watched Michael Mann's Heat for insight as to how a director might handle law enforcement's fascination with a criminal. But rather than being a simple Frankenstein of other movies, Memory is actually based on a 1980s novel by Belgian writer Jef Geeraerts called De Zaak Alzheimer (The Alzheimer Case), one of a series of stories featuring the crimefighting team of Vincke and Verstuyft.
So Tinseltown can be as smug as it likes, but the reality is that American filmmakers are plundering the Old World for ideas and not the other way around. With the exception of 2005's The Beat That My Heart Skipped, I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a list of foreign films nicked from domestic concepts.
Not surprisingly, The Memory of a Killer is being prepped for an English-language version, with obvious surnames like DeNiro, Hopper, and Hopkins being tossed around for the juicy main role, and Hollywood will once again cackle all the way to the bank for operating under the belief that John Q. Moviegoer am too dumm and layzee to reed subtitels.
The Memory of a Killer (R) opens Friday, October 28, at the Little Theatre. | They Came Back (NR) is showing Friday, October 28, in the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre.