The hit man has Alzheimer's. The concept isn't just high, it's stratospheric. If Belgium were Hollywood, The Memory of a Killer would be ubiquitous. Instead you're going to have to search for this extraordinary movie in a theater that is probably nowhere near you. Please do so. It is, without question, the best crime movie of the year--and one of the best movies of any sort now playing.
That's because the film, which took director and co-writer Eric Van Looy eight years to mount, so patiently and intelligently builds out from its gimmicky premise. To be sure, it contains more than enough colorfully staged capital crimes to satisfy its more bloodthirsty viewers, but those events take place within a densely layered plot and moral climate. The hired killer, Ledda (Jan Decleir), is a consummate and seemingly phlegmatic professional, now secretly shaken by the knowledge that his mental lights are dimming.
He has the competence to return to his native Belgium for what seems a routine job--offing a corrupt city official. It's the second part of the contract, belatedly revealed to him, that shatters his composure. He's supposed to kill a 12-year-old-girl. To Ledda she's an innocent, and it offends his killer's code to snuff her out. When he discovers that the child has been prostituted by her father and that her chief client is the son of a highly placed government official, Ledda switches sides. He was himself an abused child--it's the reason he chose to live outside the law--and now he makes contact with the police, offering them enigmatic clues about the murderous conspiracy.
The lead cop, Vincke (Koen De Bouw), is almost as interesting as Ledda, acting out the familiar Dostoyevskian paradox of the policeman who instinctively identifies with the criminal he is pursuing. He is also embroiled in a jurisdictional dispute over the case, which frustrates his pursuit of it. He's a busy guy, our Vincke, always in danger of losing the cool reasonableness that, because it matches Ledda's calm but murderous inventiveness, is his largest strength.
Once these two fully engage in their cat-and-mouse game, Memory takes on an almost ineffable intricacy, with bursts of action that startle us without sapping our ability to believe what's going on--or our sense of gathering tragedy.
Beyond that, director Van Looy imparts a wonderful sense of a glum, dark place--Belgium--that we rarely if ever visit at the movies. The logic of his film, in its plotting and its emotions, is impeccable. And haunting in a way that few crime films ever are. --By Richard Schickel