Amnesia and a murder mystery? Isn’t this usually the kind of thing that hackneyed thrillers are made of — stuff like Unforgettable, so bad you had to scrape it off your shoe the minute you left the theater?
Usually it is. But Memento proves that a skilled director, writer, and cast can take even the most tired of formulas — the man with the lost memory — and spin it into something so refreshingly different and new that I don’t hesitate to call it one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
As the picture opens, we are presented with the face of Leonard (L.A. Confidential‘s Guy Pearce in a daring yet comfortable performance), a tormented man on an unexplained quest of vengeance. And he’s got it: In the first scene he is pulling the trigger to blow open the head of a guy named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano). Soon the facts rise to the surface: Leonard was searching for the man who killed his wife, and Teddy was the prime suspect. Only there’s a twist: Due to a head injury, Leonard has no short-term memory and cannot create any new ones — his mind is stuck on the day his wife was killed.
To deal with this, Leonard has generated an intricate replacement for his mind. For immediate needs, he snaps Polaroids of people and places, jotting notes on the back. For long-term goals, he has messages to himself tattooed on his body (for example: ‘Find him and kill him’).
Heavy stuff. Leonard’s problem is so unfathomable and complex it is a constant struggle for him just to get through daily life — much less if you’re thigh-deep in a revenge scheme. All of a sudden -pop -here’s Leonard, on the run through a trailer park. But is he chasing that guy, or is that guy chasing him? It’s deliciously complicated and so circular that it’s fun.
But wait, there’s more! Soon enough we find that the whole film is presented in reverse (not backwards — the scenes are reordered from end to beginning). While the movie begins with the death of Teddy, it traces back through time as we learn how we arrived at that point. Think Betrayal meets The.
In other words, we know how the movie ends, but not how it begins. And thanks to Leonard’s condition, the audience knows what’s happening (well, sort of), but his character doesn’t. Eventually it becomes clear that Leonard is an unwitting patsy being used at the hands of those even more nefarious than himself.
It’s deeper than you can make a gimmick like this sound — and to be honest, it is just a gimmick — but it’s a gimmick that works. The movie, written and directed by Christopher Nolan (and based on his brother’s short story) is vibrant and harrowing, unpredictable despite an ending long since given away. Unfathomably, the film gets progressively better as it goes along, and I found myself inching closer and closer to the edge of my seat throughout the movie.
It’s difficult to put Memento‘s staggering festival raves out of mind, but this is the genuine article, I assure you. Those niggling questions -Would the movie work if it wasn’t told in reverse? If Leonard can’t remember anything since his accident, how does he know he has the condition at all? — only serve to make the story that much more twisty, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Ultimately, Memento stands on its own as a thriller, but it also works as a profound tragedy, stunning in its portrayal of a man teetering on the edge, though he doesn’t even know it. It asks some serious questions about how we know what to believe, since our senses and our memory all lie to us.
And in the end, Memento gives us our answer: We simply believe what we choose to.
I recently saw Memento a second time pending its home video release, and after screening it, I changed my mind about the truth behind Leonard’s plight, then I changed it back again, finding myself equally as boggled as the first time around. Much has been said about Memento‘s likely inability to stand up to repeat viewings. Don’t believe a word of it. I’m a little disappointed that the DVD doesn’t offer a commentary track from Nolan, with only a crummy and morose interview courtesy of the Independent Film Channel provided to offer guidance. Lord knows, most of us could use it.
On the road again.