Remember that name: Christopher Nolan. Just as a young American filmmaker named Bryan Singer made his mark 6 years ago with a nifty little puzzle of a movie, namely “The Usual Suspects”, British writer-director Nolan’s second feature (after the little seen “Following”) is sure to make people pay attention to his work from now on. In fact, between the two somehow similarly twisted crime thrillers, I’d pick “Memento” as the better film.
Guy Pearce stars as Leonard Shelby, a former insurance investigator who suffered an injury which led to a rare condition, short-term memory loss. He remembers everything up to the night his wife was killed and he was badly hit to the head, but since then he’s unable to retain new information. Faces, places, events, they all disappear from his mind after mere minutes. It’s obviously a frustrating existence, but Leonard has something that keeps him going: his need to get revenge. But how do you investigate when you can’t remember what you find out? For Shelby, it’s by being methodical, using a system of notes and Polaroids about each and every thing. He’ll take a picture of someone he meets and scribble down basic information on it (“Don’t believe his lies”). As for the most crucial facts, he has them tattooed on his body. Hence, written backwards (so he can read it in a mirror) on his chest is “John G. raped and murdered my wife”…
In itself, the plot doesn’t sound too striking, it’s the classic revenge story. The amnesia is an interesting touch, but even that isn’t anything new (remember the Dana Carvey comedy “Clean Slate”?). What’s really out there is the way Nolan tells his story, starting with the last scene then going back to the one before, then the one before, and so on until we get to the first scene. Sounds confusing? Well, it can be, but it’s also a fascinating concept. It sort of puts you in the same state of mind as Leonard. At the beginning of each scene, you have no idea how you got there, what exactly is happening and why, or what’s your history with the people you’re with. That Teddy fella who you’re always running into, is he a friend or a threat? That Natalie chick, is she helping you… or are you helping her? Most of the film is spent with this kind of questions being raised, by Leonard and by the audience.
At first, upon watching the finale which opens the film (!), you might wonder what’s the point of keeping watching if you already know what happens next? Except that without knowing the context, you really don’t know much about what you see. Things aren’t always as they appear, and Nolan is determined to prove it. Every time you think you’ve got a handle on the plot, it slips away and heads for a different direction. Nolan describes his movie not as a whodunit but as a “whydunit”; you know what the characters will do, but you still have to figure out why. Nolan always keeps the viewer on its toes as he unfolds his brilliant puzzle.”Memento” is the rare film where there’s never any “down time”, it completely captures your attention and keeps you thinking and trying to figure things out. Yet it isn’t a mere brainy exercise in style. The movie’s filled with twists at times shocking or hilarious, and at its core it’s an emotionally affecting tragic tale. Leonard, ironically, can’t forget about the one thing which hurts the most: the woman he loved so much and how she was taken away from him. “How can you heal,” he asks, “when you have no sense of time?”
Part of what makes “Memento” so involving lies in the performances. Guy Pearce makes for a fantastic lead. His character is totally clueless most of the time, but he puts on a phony facade of recognition. Pearce plays him with an interesting balance of innocence and fatality; Leonard is a man who’s reborn every minute, having to get familiar with situations over and over, but he’s also a man with nothing to lose. He’s nicely supported by Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano (who also co-starred together in “The Matrix”) as a waitress and a cop he keeps meeting for the first time. Moss makes for a great femme fatale, as seductive as she is manipulative, and Pantoliano is amusingly sleazy. “Memento” might be challenging but it’s even more rewarding. A definite must-see.