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Don’t Say Always: On Lisa Joy’s Reminiscence

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She appears on stage in a red dress, crooning a song he had always kept to himself. He steps toward her slowly—an image from behind a shimmering curtain—as if he had never seen a human being in such a way before, and didn’t recognize the feelings he got from looking at her. The song is “Where or When” by Rodgers and Hart, a ballad about déjà vu that overlaps the past and present, and it is used in a scene that matches its beauty. It’s from the past of a woman named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) as she lays inside a memory-recall machine that previously helped locate her keys, but it’s the instant that Nick (Hugh Jackman) falls in love. Like many passages in writer/director Lisa Joy’s “Reminiscence,” this moment is made possible in part by genre—by the fictional science of a machine that projects one person’s memories like a hologram on a small stage—and in part by the neo-noir air that introduces a spare, compelling voice behind an antique microphone as true love and a femme fatale. But these grandiose Hollywood components, however recognizable, are only part of the language that Joy uses for her lyrical, devastating depiction of heartbreak, “Reminiscence.” 

Hers is a love story about something more tangential than “happily ever after”—the where or when that makes a connection possible or unsustainable. The “where” being the closeness that brings them into our lives (whether it’s a party, or a dating app) and the “when,” referring to the relationship being at the right time in each person’s life. These are emotional stakes that all of our relationships face, factors that we count on always lining up when building a life with another person. Under the guise of a hard-boiled mystery, “Reminiscence” actualizes the great sadness of meeting someone at what turns out to be the wrong time in their lives, and the tragedy of refusing to ultimately live with that. 

Joy’s script focuses on romantic love, the kind of love that inspires people to say such classics as, “Thank God I met you when I did,” and “I’m the luckiest person in the world.” For a little while, Nick is just that lucky. He meets a beguiling person who drops into his memory-recall business out of the blue; the two share extremely cinematic moments of megawatt movie star intimacy, both wholesome and sexy. It’s love, far more permanent in his brain than hers, given that she will soon suddenly disappear from his life, and the future he had conceived. One part of their original meet-cute rings throughout, though Nick forgets about it: before she steps into the reminiscence, he assures her that “it always turns out just fine.” To which she then replies: “Don’t say ‘always.’ ‘Always’ makes promises it can’t keep.” If only he took that to heart after she vanished, launching a personal investigation that becomes much more of an addiction. 

One can’t understand the poetic sense of loss in “Reminiscence,” or the past, present, and future of its characters without looking at addiction, which is the center of Joy’s world-building. Her script aches for how its many characters are hooked to sensations that are not about living in the present, and how that affects their connections to others. In a subplot of immense importance, Thandie Newton plays a high-functioning alcoholic named Watts, who lives in an unhealthy limbo working for Nick, who, in her own words, “doesn’t pay me enough to drink myself to death.” We learn that her alcoholism, which makes her able to kill a pint of whiskey over the course of one conversation with Mae, has created a barrier between her and a family that lives elsewhere. Watts holds the emotional stability of the film, especially as “Reminiscence” gets more and more brooding with Nick lamenting that he needs answers for why Mae left him. 

The menace of addiction is symbolized with an evil that’s equal to the rich land barons, flooded streets, and border wars—a drug named baca. Baca is more than just a drug, it’s a product of this civilization that also keeps Nick’s reminiscence machine in business, and it’s a drug that one will always be addicted to, tethered to. We learn throughout Nick’s investigation into her past that Mae is a baca addict from five years back. It becomes a symbol of how she’s still working through past actions, especially when she is forced into doing a con job by a corrupt cop named Boothe (Cliff Curtis), which will square up a past decision she made in stealing baca from a drug dealer named Saint Joe (Daniel Wu). Through glimpses of the memories of her associates, Nick tries to understand Mae’s sudden disappearance, and has the obscurity of a femme fatale, and even worse, someone who did not seem to love him back. But it becomes clearer that this was not the perfect timing that Nick thought it was, or that she wished it could be. Mae wanted to have this love, even as she was working a con demanded by retribution. She speaks of love as a hope that she too desires, (“love is something we climb to … if we could just hold on”) but her past decides how it was not meant to be always for Mae and Nick. 

“Reminiscence” is the story of Nick becoming addicted to his own trade, so messed up by this virtual break-up that his words of wisdom from the opening voiceover are revealed to be a melancholy curse in the end: “Nothing is more addictive than the past.” When he first meets Mae, he says he doesn’t go in the machine—only for Joy to cut to him in the tank, months later, which we learn he’s been doing constantly. The plotting of Joy’s story frames it as part of a winding mystery, but Jackman’s feverish performance presents this as a deep addiction (Watts later calls him a “junkie”) that comes with the brief, fleeting comfort of getting to be with her again, putting reality on pause. Meanwhile, Watts tries to keep him in check with the same frankness of a group chat: “Wherever she is, she has moved on. And you should too.” 

We become addicted to the good memories (or so my therapist says), and Nick’s resistance to the present leads to the film’s bleak and meaningful subversion of happily ever after. In one of Joy’s more bleeding heart narrative flourishes, Nick and Mae are seen again in a flashback, at the top of a tower that matches the peak of their relationship before everything changed. He tells her a story of mythology not too dissimilar from their own, but ends the story in the middle. Nick prefers to end his own story in the middle as well; he does not accept her as a memory, but one that he must confine himself to, one in which she does not technically exist. One of the final shots at the end of the film’s timeline involves seeing Nick as older, grayer, and laying in the tank. A small grin complements the wrinkles on his face, as he forces “always” to exist in his head. It’s no way to live. 

Joy’s story is filled with the baffling darkness of love lost, but it finds just enough hope in a final moment with Watts. She seems to have resigned that Nick has taken himself out of the game that is human existence, but her own life speaks to choosing the present, moving past heartbreak in its various forms, and emboldening the connections she has with people around her. In Watts’ case, she returns to Nick’s reminiscence machine with her granddaughter by her side, a sign of the life that Watts chose after the story’s main timeline. Her last few words are especially poignant, as one considers how the addiction to memories in “Reminiscence” is a form of grief without the liberating, necessary release of acceptance. “Missing people is a part of this world. Without that sadness you can’t taste the sweet."  

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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