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Memento   A-

Newmarket Films

Year Released: 2000 (USA: 2001)
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Stephen Tobolowsky, Harriet Sansom Harris, Jorja Fox.

Review by Jeremiah Kipp

Christopher Nolan's Memento should intrigue anyone who enjoys riddles. In order to retain the singular pleasure of watching Nolan's puzzle-box thriller, this review shall not divulge crucial plot details. The filmmaker's entire approach cleverly transforms the viewer's frame of reference into a blank slate, followed by the steady, cumulative deliberation over whether or not information received by our central character is true or false.

"John G. raped and murdered your wife." But who is this John G., and furthermore, who the hell are you? Those are the central questions that plague former insurance investigator turned vigilante Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce, L.A. Confidential), a man faced with the inability to retain any new memories. Meaning, he remembers everything in his life until the fateful night when the masked "John G." broke into his house. After suffering a blow to the head when struggling with this intruder, Leonard's life is forever changed. Present tense experiences are forgotten within 10-15 minutes.

Leonard is both helpless and surprisingly resourceful. Driven by revenge, he attempts to sleuth out the elusive killer. His tools? A Polaroid camera, a detailed police report, a body lined with tattoos (various proven facts written across his arms, legs, and chest in reverse, all the better to see through the looking glass), scribbled notes, and the compulsive need to repeat stories or catch-phrases. Despite all these clever tricks, an unscrupulous hotel room clerk (Mark Boone Junior) still manages to keep ripping him off by charging for rooms twice.

Told backwards in time, Memento places us into the same situation as Leonard: never knowing what came before. We travel with him until he forgets where he is, at which time we go back to the previous memory. Our unreliable protagonist wakes up during a frenetic chase scene not knowing whether he's the one in pursuit. Is he in his own hotel room or someone else's? Objects may be in his hands and he won't know how they got there. Each time, Leonard is forced to regroup. We sympathize not because he is such a good person (he'd never know if he were), but that he is the drowning man struggling to remain above water.

"Don't believe his lies" is one of the more intriguing notes he accepts as proven fact, since his relationship with ever-smilin' Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) hinges on it. Is this Cheshire Cat lurking around every corner a friend or foe? A sympathetic cop attempting to lend a helping hand or a two-faced criminal snaring him into a trap? Leonard has somehow been instructed not to believe Teddy's lies, but who told him that? Is that person to be trusted? Perhaps it's a set-up to eliminate his only ally -- or perhaps not.

See how complicated this is? I hesitate to scrutinize the numerous plot contrivances too closely, since Nolan's irresistible frame of narrative forever being wiped out allows an easy escape route. The concept is strong enough to overcome basic plot hurtles. Lies are invented to lead into scenarios too good to be true, or to steer away from those truths.

Pearce does an admirable job holding Memento together in the lead role, a fiery-eyed, charismatic cipher. The supporting cast of reliable character actors (suspects, all) is a virtual who's who of reality bending meta-thriller veterans: mysterious barmaid Carrie Anne-Moss and the excellent Pantoliano are familiar from The Matrix. Vicious thug Callum Keith Rennie played a notable heavy in David Cronenberg's eXistenZ. Stephen Tobolowsky, a crucial sideline player also suffering from short-term memory loss, was the unctuous, ever-present salesman that harassed Bill Murray throughout Groundhog Day.

In retrospect, the plot of Memento is simple, if somewhat open to audience interpretation -- I've heard no less than three different theories about what happened. Don't believe their lies. At the immediate moment of viewing, however, anything is possible. How ironic that a film with the queasy inverse logic of a nightmare should brace you into feeling awake and observant to every detail.

On an odd symbiotic note -- I saw Memento shortly after stepping off a plane from Los Angeles, still reeling from the three-hour time difference. After checking out this excellent retro-noir, a queasy guilt set in. Something had slipped my mind. Tickets had been reserved for myself and friends to attend a play that evening. Too late now. I had forgotten to write it down. Talk about short-term memory loss!

Review published 03.20.2001.

For another opinion, read Rob Vaux's review.

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