|© 2001=2010 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
Memory has played a major role in several great works of literature: if
Proust didn't have his madeleines, he might not have written his master work
A la recherche du temps perdu. There are other great dramas like Tennessee
Williams' THE GLASS MENAGERIE and Eugene O'Neill's LONG DAY'S
JOURNEY INTO NIGHT that are classified as "memory" plays. But what
exactly is "memory"? Can it be trusted? Research indicates that eyewitness
testimony can be spotty regarding some details. What if you have a
"condition" like anterograde amnesia which can be brought about by a physical
trauma that results in loss of consciousness. That's the situation for Leonard
Shelby (well-played by Guy Pearce), a former insurance investigator now trying
to track down the man who raped and murdered his wife and left him with a
brain injury, in the terrific thriller MEMENTO, written and directed by
One of the most original and intriguing films in years, MEMENTO is a
richly complex or satisfyingly entertaining movie. Nolan has not succumbed to
the so-called "sophomore slump"; indeed this second feature builds on the
nonlinear style that is becoming his signature. Adapting a short story by his
younger brother Jonathan, he has crafted a modern film noir with all the
genre's major elements: shady characters, a flawed central figure, the tough
dame who may or may not be what she appears, and criminal activity.
Although it opened in Europe in 2000, the movie screened at the 2001
Sundance Film Festival where it picked up the Waldo Salt Award for
Screenwriting and has now made its way to theaters. Nolan has taken what
could seem like a gimmick -- the story unfolds in reverse chronology -- and
made it work (just as Harold Pinter did with Betrayal). From the opening
images of MEMENTO, a gun shot in reverse, a Polaroid undeveloping and
jumping back into the camera, Nolan cleverly sets up the tone and action.
We are starting at the end of the story, or are we? Because the hero cannot
form new memories -- he literally cannot remember anything said to him
after 15 or 20 minutes -- the audience enters into his story and immediately
bonds with him. We are as confused as he is and are at a loss as to who
to trust. Only gradually, as Leonard's story unfolds does the audience gain
insight into those people around him and whether or not they are exploiting
Pearce, who has already proven his versatility playing a bitchy drag queen
in THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT to the
straight-arrow cop Ed Exley in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, once again displays his
prodigious gifts. Virtually onscreen for nearly the entire film, he is nothing
short of amazing, conveying the character's mistrust, his guile, his confusion.
Leonard has been befriended by two people in this new town, a sexy
bartender named Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), a
weaselly guy who may or may not be mixed up with something criminal. In
order to compensate for his handicap, Leonard has developed a set of
conditioning tools, like taking Polaroids and writing notes on them. So if he
needs to identify his car, for instance, or the motel at which he's staying, he
shuffles through a stack of photos. For Teddy, he has noted "Do not believe
his lies" while for Natalie, he has written, "She has lost someone too. She will
help you out of pity", although there is ominously something else that had
been crossed out. Leonard has also taken the extreme measure of having
various messages tattooed onto his body, like "John G raped and killed my
wife" across his chest (and backwards so he can read it in the mirror) to
various "facts" like, "drug dealer" or a license plate number.
Once one adjusts to its unusual structure, MEMENTO provides several
pleasures. For those who enjoy mysteries and puzzles, the film poses
fascinating questions to which there are no easy answers. Those who are fans
of films noir will appreciate the nods to various movies in that genre while
those who enjoy more experimental work can appreciate Nolan's screenplay,
which at first may seem gimmicky, but, on closer inspection, is actually dense,
literate and thought-provoking, raising issues of the nature and formation of
memory, what constitutes one's identity, how do humans learn to trust, and,
ultimately, what the price of revenge costs.
While in many ways the screenplay and Nolan's fluid direction are
paramount, the acting bolsters the central premise. After stumbling a bit with
his turn as a prosecutor in RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, Guy Pearce offers a
commanding performance as Leonard. Familiar enough to audiences but not
too recognizable a face, Pearce is perfectly suited to the role and delivers
some of his best work, dominating but not overpowering the story. Joe
Pantoliano nicely plays off the squirrelly bad guy persona (i.e., RISKY
BUSINESS, THE MATRIX) he has built up over the last twenty-odd years.
Carrie-Anne Moss continues to impress as the mysterious bartender, projecting
the same mix of strength, sensuality and helplessness that such actresses as
Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Greer and Mary Astor have in the past. There's also
nice character work from Mark Boone Junior as a motel manager, and Stephen
Tobolowsky and Harriet Sansom Harris as a married couple whom Leonard once
investigated and whose story runs parallel to his own.
MEMENTO is that rare motion picture that offers a bevy of riches to the
audience. It is also the kind of movie that deepens on closer inspection, while
multiple viewings are almost required to fully appreciate all it has to offer.
Rating: A -
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language and
some drug content
Running time: 113 mins.