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Memento

review by Rob Gonsalves

DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER
Christopher Nolan

STORY BY
Jonathan Nolan

PRODUCERS
Jennifer Todd
Suzanne Todd

CINEMATOGRAPHER
Wally Pfister

MUSIC
David Julyan

EDITOR
Dody Dorn


CAST

Guy Pearce (Leonard)
Carrie-Anne Moss
(Natalie)
Joe Pantoliano
(Teddy)
Mark Boone Junior
(Burt)
Russ Fega
(Waiter)
Jorja Fox
(Leonard's Wife)
Stephen Tobolowsky
(Sammy)
Harriet Sansom Harris
(Mrs. Jankis)
Thomas Lennon
(Doctor)
Callum Keith Rennie
(Dodd)


MPAA rating: R
Running time: 113m
U.S. release: March 16, 2001
Video availability: VHS - DVD
Official website


Other Christopher Nolan films
reviewed on this website:

- Insomnia


As you may have heard by now, the acclaimed thriller Memento is the story of a man with no short-term memory, told entirely backward. The man, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), wants to find out who raped and murdered his wife; the same "incident" that made him a widower also gave him head trauma that left him unable to "form new memories" -- he can remember everything up to the event, but everything after that eludes his grasp, to the point where he has turned his whole body into a tattooed Post-It note of reminders ("John G. raped and murdered my wife," reads one message written on his chest -- backwards, so that he can read it in the mirror every time he shaves, which he also has to remind himself to do).

Would Memento be as effective if told forward instead of backward? Of course not. The brilliance of Memento is not in its story but in how it tells the story. When a scene begins, we are as disoriented as Leonard; sometimes he ends up talking to someone we haven't seen before, and he doesn't ever remember meeting, yet they act as if they've known him for a while. The scene then ends -- please try to stay with me here -- with the beginning of the previous scene. This is nowhere near as frustrating for the viewer as it sounds; instead, it's transfixing and does an ingenious job of putting us inside Leonard's fractured perception. Sometimes you get so involved in a scene that you forget you've already seen how it's going to end.

Writer-director Christopher Nolan, whose first film was a black-and-white noir (1998's Following) little seen in America, turns up the volume of the usual noir paranoia to 11: not only can't you trust anyone, you can't remember why you can't trust anyone. Yet the film is cool, contemplative, a puzzle movie in which you see the finished puzzle right up front and then watch as it disassembles itself. I could tell you who the killer of Leonard's wife is, or seems to be, since the movie opens with Leonard getting his revenge, or seeming to; yet treachery complicates Leonard's mission (as if it weren't complicated enough), so when we hear a revelation at the end of the film (the movie's chronological beginning) -- a revelation that Leonard, at the movie's beginning/story's end, has long forgotten -- we don't know if it's on the level or not. All I'll say is that it's been a while since I've seen a twist ending like this that works on about 17 different levels aside from turning the plot on its head.

The newly blonde, slightly stubbly Guy Pearce, looking like a more precisely chiselled Brad Pitt, underplays Leonard throughout; he's a hero in a daze, often unconsciously funny, as when he tells the same story over and over, to the bemusement of acquaintances who've heard it over and over. Given the challenge of embodying a man who forgets whatever happened ten minutes ago, Pearce has to begin anew in every scene, a blank slate with vague impressions of quiet anguish. His best moment here comes when Leonard hires a prostitute for an experiment baffling to her but, to us, funny at first and then undeniably saddening.

The only other two major roles in Memento are filled by Carrie-Anne Moss, as a mysterious bartender named Natalie, and Joe Pantoliano, as a mysterious figure (criminal? cop?) named Teddy. The Matrix connection is probably no coincidence: Leonard is living in a sort of matrix himself, a shadow world in which everything is a shadow. Last time I checked, Memento had risen to #44 on the Internet Movie Database's Top 250 Movies list, voted on by registered users, making it the youngest film in the top 50. There's a reason for that. The movie will almost surely madden some and fascinate others (some may feel both ways); if given a proper push, this could become the most talked-about cinematic Rubik's Cube since The Usual Suspects. Yet Christopher Nolan never strikes you as a hot-shot getting high on his own narrative cleverness. Memento leaves you with an existential chill. If you see the film, ask yourself how you feel about Leonard's final decision (or, I should say, the decision he makes before the end credits): whether it's understandable, whether it's justifiable, and above all, whether it really makes any damn difference.



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