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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 Rob Vaux

The first great film of 2001 is here. Memento, a sly piece of film noir with a fabulous premise and the technical chops to back it up, has come to save us from the mid-March doldrums. The film earned accolades on the festival circuit late last year, and it's not hard to see why. With gutsy confidence, it demonstrates how strong filmmaking can enhance and elevate an already solid concept.

Guy Pearce stars as Leonard Shelby, a former insurance investigator who has lost his short-term memory. He suffered a blow on the head during the brutal rape-murder of his wife, and has since been unable to remember anything for longer than a few minutes. He sets out to avenge his wife, using scribbled notes, Polaroid photos, and information tattooed onto his skin to maintain that ever-elusive thread of memory. The notes form the anchor of his investigation; he relies on them as the only source of reliable information amid the supposed friends, lovers, and enemies in his path. But as the film continues, and his debilitating condition erases what he has learned, we find that such foundations have a nasty habit of sliding out from under him.

In and of itself, the story is typically noir, complete with a beautiful femme fatale (Carrie-Anne Moss), a conniving shyster-informant (Joe Pantoliano), and a hard-boiled protagonist struggling to parse the truth from a tangled web of lies. Other films in this vein have also used amnesia as a convenient plot device -- the hero can't remember what he's done, whether he's committed murder or not, etc. -- to fill the audience with uncertainty. But few have developed the conceit in such an innovative way. In unfolding its narrative, Memento follows a reverse course: it starts with the image of a dead man, the last chronological event to take place. It then skips backwards in short, ten-minute increments. Each scene leads up to the one preceding it before cutting away to a new scene, which leads up to the previous one and so on. The story follows this reverse pattern, each new cut revealing more and more until the entire puzzle is clear.

In other hands, it may have been a colossal gimmick, but here, it works fabulously well. The structure quickly becomes familiar, and while it requires close attention, director Christopher Nolan keeps a firm hand on all the action. The reverse structure also places us directly into Leonard's mindset (aided by a remarkable performance from Pearce). He begins every scene just as we do, with no idea who he is or what he's doing. He must discern his surroundings, digest what he's previously learned, and act on his instincts before it all fades again. We cling to the clues provided, like Leonard does, because they're all we have to go on. By the time Memento starts to question them, we're already too far under its spell to escape. Nolan has enough confidence in his premise to poke fun at it every once in a while (at one point, Leonard finds himself in the middle of a chase and can't remember whether he's fleeing or pursuing), but never loses touch with the dark themes beneath it.

Memento arrives in theaters less than a month after The Caveman's Valentine, another mystery involving a debilitated detective. But while that film merely provided an interesting twist on the traditional murder mystery, Memento makes its protagonist's condition an integral part of the film. It pulls off a colossal magic act with death-defying skill, and brings a fresh approach to every part of its clever tale. A few bits get missed (I'm still trying to digest a couple of loose plot threads), but nothing detracts from its near-flawless fusion of story and technique. Walking out of Memento, we can be glad that we don't share Leonard's amnesiac condition; it's the kind of film you don't want to forget.

Review published 03.19.2001.

For another opinion, read Jeremiah Kipp's review.

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