**** out of ****
June 25, 2001
BY ADAM KEMPENAAR
A man holds a Polaroid of a dead body. In the background, the actual body lies face down on the cold basement floor. The man shakes the picture up and down, but instead of coming closer into focus, the image slowly disappears, until it is gone completely -- as if time is somehow moving backwards.
This is the first shot in Memento's stunning opening sequence, and writer/director Christopher Nolan wastes no time in showing his audience that what you are about to experience is like nothing you've ever experienced before. Not only is time moving backwards, but one's memories may not be real, and characters may not be who you think they are. As the fading image illustrates, Memento isn't going to expose the truth. It's only going to make it harder to see.
The man holding the photo is Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a former insurance-fraud investigator searching for the man who raped and murdered his wife. Leonard was also injured in the attack and now suffers from a curious condition that prevents him from developing new memories. He can't remember which hotel he is staying at, or which car is his, or who his so-called friends are, without relying on a Polaroid or some scribbled note. The most important "facts" in his quest for revenge he has tattooed onto his body.
With its disjointed narrative -- the entire film is told backwards, each scene detailing what happened before the previous one -- one might be tempted to write Memento off as a clever gimmick. To be sure, the movie does resemble another gimmick flick, The Usual Suspects, in that both are about crime; both feature unreliable narrators; and both have surprise endings that essentially negate everything you thought was true.
But unlike Suspects, Memento's slick structure doesn't just serve to manipulate the audience. Rather, Nolan employs the reverse chronology as a means toward better understanding his main character's predicament. Just as Leonard must continually ask himself, "Where am I? How did I get here?," the audience, too, must have that same jolt of fear from scene to scene -- the recognition that we have no clue where we are or how we got here and now must start putting the puzzle pieces together.
Nolan also shows considerable skill as a director by not letting his visual artistry overshadow the work of his talented group of actors. As Edmund Exley in L.A. Confidential (another twist on the film noir genre), Pearce played an ambitious cop who was equal parts boy scout and schemer -- wholesome and pure on the surface, but tough and shrewd when it came to getting what he wanted.
Here Pearce again shows his mastery at portraying a walking contradiction. He captures the anguish of a man destroyed by the loss of his wife, desperately seeking revenge even though he won't be able to remember it. At the same time, he carries himself with a certain complacency, as if he is somehow comfortable with the knowledge that his life has meaning as long as the guy who ruined it is still out there.
Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix) is convincing as the femme fatale who lures Leonard with sympathy but is really just exploiting him. And the underrated Joe Pantoliano (also from The Matrix) plays one of the film's most intriguing conundrums. Despite being a total slimeball, his character, Teddy, might be the only person Leonard can trust.
With its first-rate cast, sharp visual style, and inventive narrative structure, Memento is so hypnotic that upon leaving the theater, the world outside feels slightly different, as if any minute things could start moving in reverse. It's a rare film that works on both an emotional and intellectual level -- one that you're likely to ponder for days, or even weeks, after seeing.