All of us have experienced temporary amnesia – perhaps when we awakened in a strange motel and couldn’t remember where we were for a few seconds. But what if you had a special form of amnesia that doesn’t allow you to form short-term memories after a traumatic event in your life? So if you were talking to a friend for more than two minutes you would forget everything you had talked about, and you couldn’t even remember if you even know your partner. This rare form of amnesia sets up the basic premise of Memento.
Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is a victim of this mental condition, claiming that he can’t remember anything after his wife was brutally raped and murdered. He has sworn revenge and obsessively searches anonymous motels and abandoned warehouses around Los Angeles in search of the killer. Shelby believes he has solved the murder at the beginning of the film and kills his suspect because he doesn’t “believe his lies.” We spend the next 110 minutes mostly going backwards to see how our narrator has solved the mystery and to see if he got the right man. (Though it may sound difficult to believe, I assure you that I haven’t given away too much here)
There are actually some black and white snippets that objectively carry the plot forward if you watch specifically for them. There are other mysteries to resolve along the way, like who the fuck is that battered guy in the closet with the duct tape over his mouth?
Memento weaves a mesmerizing puzzle that comes across like a hybrid of Ground Hog Day, Suspicion, and The Manchurian Candidate pieced together much like Tarrantino’s Pulp Fiction. Only this time we don’t need to get inside the heads of different characters for a Rashomon style recounting of past events. We discover the missing pieces along with our unreliable narrator since he can only recall recent events by taking Polaroid photos, labeling them, and by tattooing key messages on his body. Like unfolding news events broadcast by clueless reporters, how accurate can those cryptic messages and pictures be?
Traveling backwards in time with Shelby, we become privy to his disoriented existence, only most of us have functional short term memories. Indeed, during one sequence Shelby has to sort out whether he is chasing a gunman or is being chased by him. While the scene gives a chuckle, it also helps us realize Shelby’s vulnerable condition. Each waking moment requires going through his photos and examining his tattoos anew, as he attempts to piece together where he is and what his latest task is.
Two characters seem sympathetic to Shelby’s quest for revenge. But are they really unselfishly helpful? Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) seems to be a friendly cop or undercover agent, but he also remarks that Shelby would make the perfect assassin since he never remembers what he’s done. Mysterious bartender Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss from The Matrix fame) may love Shelby, or perhaps she has other motives for befriending him. We will eventually discover the truth about both of these characters, but Memento clearly establishes how difficult it is to trust anyone when you have no past recollections. Literally Shelby must rely upon the kindness of strangers to get through his day to day existence, especially since each 15 minutes can seem like a brand new day, requiring complete re-orientation through his picture collection and tattoos.
If this sounds confusing, just check out the film. It makes a lot more sense visually than anything I could describe verbally. Similarly, detailed people are sure to find a plot hole somewhere due to the complexities of crossing time and sequence, but that’s irrelevant. It can make for some interesting discussion afterwards, and I’ve found that people who have seen the film will often disagree over some plot ambiguities associated with the unfolding revelations near the end.
Memento works, and actually invites re-watching, unlike a far shallower work like The Sixth Sense that relies on one simple plot twist. As a fan of Hitchcock, I enjoy films that challenge us to piece together a mystery and are able to “fool” me without me feeling like I’ve been ripped off, and amazingly Memento accomplished this despite the glimpse of the logical climax at the beginning.
This is independent director Christopher Nolan’s second film, and he has adapted his brother Jonathan’s short story to create a deserving Sundance Grand Jury prize winning work. Yet as strong as director Nolan’s writing is, and as strong as the editing is with additional information layered upon each scene repetition, the film would falter without a strong lead acting performance.
The casting is ingenious, beginning with chameleon Australian actor Guy Pearce, most famous for his drag queen role in Priscilla Queen of the Desert and his politically savvy and brainy cop role in L.A. Confidential. This time Pearce pulls off an even more challenging part, transforming minute to minute from a thoroughly confused and vulnerable innocent to his former insurance investigator persona to a potentially heartless killer. Pearce accomplishes this with subtlety of expression, often through his eyes and through his body language. We feel for his character, even when his character turns into an unsympathetic persona, realizing that he will return to his innocent self as if awakening from a continual nightmare.
The two supporting actors are effective as well, especially Joe Pantoliano, who lends some necessary humorous touches to the film noir.
People used to straightforward storytelling will find Memento difficult, but other films like The Usual Suspects, Pulp Fiction, and The Limey have paved the way for non-linear plot lines and such films have grown in more and more mainstream fare. Nolan has crafted much more than an artistic film exercise that only arthouse indie fans can appreciate, as it treats the audience with respect without being overly pretentious. Memento contains enough layers to warrant repeat viewings.