Reminiscence can be “the process or practice of thinking or telling about past experiences” and “Reminiscence,” Lisa Joy’s feature film directorial debut, relies heavily on the voice of leading man, Hugh Jackman. You might have forgotten that Jackman was, before he became Wolverine (2000-2017), Curly in the Royal National Theatre’s stage production of “Oklahoma!” on London’s West End in 1998. While there is seductive singing in “Reminiscence,” the voice featured isn’t Jackman’s. Joy’s film takes us to a dystopian world where a military-trained contract consultant interrogator uses a high tech brain reading device to both allow people to relive pleasant past experiences and to investigate crimes. When his lover disappears, he launches into his own investigation.
The film constantly warns us there won’t be a happy ending, not in a world where war and global warming has left most of the population clinging to life in half-submerged cities while the very rich live in a separate world behind high walls.
During the war, barons like Walter Sylvan bought up all the drylands for pennies on the dollar. They profited off the desperate and left them to live at the mercy of the tides. The displaced carry on the best they can. One day, the ocean will reclaim all of this. Until then, the Sunken Coast is where they call home.
Eventually the water will take over and there are no quaintly romantic gondola rides. Still this is a romance in a private investigator noir fashion in a world that has literally gone noir.
When the sun rises, Miami turns into a ghost town. To escape the heat of day, the city’s become nocturnal, but sleep doesn’t come easy. We’re all haunted by something.
Jackman plays Nick Bannister, a man hardboiled by a war, a direct descendent by PTSD of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (World War II) and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee (Korean War). Along with the alcoholic Watts (Thandiwe Newton), one of his wartime cohorts, Bannister runs a business that uses old military interrogation equipment to access memories that can be recorded on glass plates which he then stores in a vault. But this isn’t a bucks-driven business; Bannister gives freebies to friends.
Bannister’s gift is his voice and Hugh Jackman reminds you that his is a wonderful instrument, often lost in the excesses of Wolverine comic-book on-screen persona. The voice is firm, but not harsh. Eroded by the reality of a world on the brink of drowning in the ocean, Bannister’s voice has a smooth, soft sentimental feel. It’s a voice that can be trusted in slumber.
With the help of a drug (thiopental) jabbed into the base of the neck where Spock might have given his Vulcan nerve pinch, the client or, during military ops or police interrogations, the suspected perp is fitted with electrical headgear and set inside a sensory deprivation tank. Lying down to float in a foot of water, the person listens to Bannister’s voice to guide them down through their memories.
Some return to lost loves, replaying a happy moment over and over again, producing a happiness that is as addictive as a drug. A woman remembers when her husband was in love with her and she was pregnant with their son. A man remembers his true love who is long dead. A woman remembers a specific tryst with her lover who has left her.
Truth is, nothing is more addictive than the past. Who wouldn’t want to be reunited with loved one? Or relive the most meaningful moments of their life? But memories, even good ones, have a voracious appetite. If you’re not careful, they consume you.
These sentimental journeys are not the only thing that keep Bannister and Watts afloat financially.
Years ago, the battles at the border ended, but the battles at home had just begun. We try to go on like nothing’s changed, but underneath, the city simmers with unrest, which means the DA’s office is never short of work.
That means, Bannister and Watts are called in to retrieve memories of crimes, including ones possibly committed by Sylvan.
In their office, the memories are projected inside a small circular arena for both Bannister and Watts to witness, shimmering inside the beaded arrays so that Bannister can help guide the person through and even, should he want, enter as part of the scenario, taking on projection of a character from memory.
The guide must not push or frighten the subject and never ask to go down pathways that don’t exist. Bannister says:
People tend to notice the same things they were focused on in the moment. I mean, it’s possible, if you revisit the same memory enough to notice new things, but if you’re not careful, you can get burned, have the moment seared in an endless loop in your mind.”
One night, late, in walks a dame, Mae (Rebecca Ferguson). She just wants to find her keys. She eschews modesty, stripping down from her cheap red dress, so starkly naked that Bannister averts his eyes. She forgets to take her lucky earrings off and removes them last-minute. The keys are found, but the woman, a singer, has already burned her image and voice into Bannister’s primal brain and she has forgotten her earrings. Returning her earrings, Bannister visits her at the club, a cheap dive called the Coconut Club. Mae isn’t Bacall, but she’s has a seductive tilt of the head and she’s not an innocent. When she disappears–settling up with her landlord and emptying her apartment, Bannister seeks her by reliving her recorded memories and his memories of them together. He finds himself entangled in a world of crime that takes him to New Orleans, where he faces a Chinese American drug lord, Saint Joe.
Saint Joe is a survivor of internment camps, an ABC-mother’s nightmare. In this Neo-noir, Saint Joe is Joy’s most delightfully treacherous creation. Daniel Wu imbues him with a sleazy malevolence that oozes with dangerous insinuations while speaking a Southern drawl kind of Chinglish one had wished for in Joss Whedon’s “Serenity” and his short-lived TV series, “Firefly.” Saint Joe is a drug dealer of the addictive “baca” and Mae is an addict.
As with any noir story, expect double crosses, crimes and deaths. Bannister wonders who Mae is when she’s not with him. While you might wonder if the heavy narrative voiceover is an example of telling rather than showing, the narration fits in with the theme and the ending.
As writer and director, Joy, who is also the co-creator, writer, director, and executive producer of the HBO science-fiction drama series “Westworld” (2016–present), has created a fully realized nuanced world, with plenty of neo-noir atmosphere under the lensing of Paul Cameron, and the editing of Mark Yoshikawa smoothly transitions from memory to reality and back.
“Reminiscence” isn’t just about memories and love, but also about Platonic thought. After seeing this film, you might want to read Plato’s “Symposium” which is a dialogue that depicts speeches given in praise of Eros, the god of love and desire, by famous men and touches upon one of the themes in the film.
When old age comes, maybe it is both a blessing and a curse that we lose our memories, but what is heaven and what is hell within the memories locked in our brains? Joy’s “Reminiscence” considers the choices we make for love in a detailed Neo-noir world that I wouldn’t mind revisiting to discover the backstories of other characters.
“Reminiscence” was release on 20 August 2021 at theaters and on HBO Max (30 days).