By Rob Blackwelder
"Memento" opens with a seemingly motionless shot of a disturbing Polaroid photograph. A dead body lies face down with a bullet wound in the back of the head. As this shot lingers, the image in the snapshot begins to fade and lighten. Suddenly, the hand holding the photo shakes it around a little, like one does when waiting for a Polaroid to develop -- and the picture fades further. Soon the image of the body is gone completely.
By the time the blank photo jumps back into the camera and the flash goes off, you've already realized you're watching events unfold in reverse. Blood seeps up a wall and a gun flies back into the hands of the man with the camera. Bullet casings leap off the floor and reunite with bullets re-entering the barrel. The dead man stands up. You've just witnessed a murder -- backwards.
While the rest of action takes place in forward gear, the story of "Memento" continues to be told in retrograde. Writer-director Christopher Nolan ("Following") takes us back in time a few minutes to learn that the dead man, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), was killed by Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) as vengeance for the rape and murder of his wife. More importantly, we learn that Leonard received a blow to the head while trying to save her and it severely damaged his short-term memory.
The film rewinds further, to earlier the same day when Leonard bumps into Teddy, pulls out of his pocket a stack of Polaroids he uses to keep track of the people and places in his life. He finds Teddy's picture and on the front he's written "Teddy 555-0134." On the back it says, "Don't believe his lies. He's the one. Kill him."
Leonard has to take his own word for it. He doesn't remember ever meeting Teddy before and he doesn't know when or why he wrote what he wrote on that picture. His wife's murder is the last thing he recalls, and he doesn't even know how many weeks, months or years have passed. Everything that has happened to him since never lasts more than 10 minutes in his mind.
But as "Memento" continues to turn the clock back, we bear witness to all that Leonard doesn't remember: the events that lead him to this blind act of vengeance -- not all of which are what they seem.An unforgettable, ingeniously original deconstructionist film noir, "Memento" is meticulously and precisely assembled so that each scene jumps back a few minutes or a few hours to reveal a little more of its mystery. Earlier scenes hint that Teddy may have been helping Leonard in his search. But why would Teddy do that if he's the one who killed Leonard's wife? The plot thickens.
Then there's Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), a bartender with an abusive boyfriend who seems to be the source of the last bits of evidence that get Teddy killed. "She's lost someone too," reads the back of her Polaroid. "She will help you out of pity."
Of course, Leonard doesn't remember either of them. They could have lied to him five minutes ago and he wouldn't know it -- and neither would we until later scenes reveal what happened earlier.
Although it may not sound like it, "Memento" is surprisingly easy to follow. It's also incredibly hard to describe and absolutely astonishing to watch.
Nolan provides flashbacks of Leonard's old life as an insurance adjuster in order to establish his background (it seems he once denied coverage for a man with the same mental condition he has now). A voice-over also helps bring the character into sharp focus. For instance, Leonard describes the system he's developed for keeping track of his life, including the Polaroids (his car, the hotel he's staying in, the people he meets) and the quite chilling tattoos he has all over his body spelling out the facts of his investigation that he can't afford to lose -- the verified clues to the identity his wife's killer.
Pearce (best known as the ambitious boy scout cop in "L.A. Confidential") gives an exhilarating, complex and appropriately enigmatic performance as Leonard, a man who wakes up every morning believing he just watched his wife die and remembering almost nothing except that his memory is fried. He has to piece together the same puzzle more than once a day and it's made him edgy, anguished and determined.
"How am I supposed to heal if I can't feel time?" he asks in one scene. Good point. Here's an even better one: "Even if you get revenge," Natalie tells him, "you're not going to remember it."
Moss's performance is as strong and abstruse as Pearce's -- and startling, too, because the further back "Memento" goes, the more is revealed about just how well Natalie understands and even manipulates Leonard's condition.
Nolan has a crackerjack command over the intricacies of this story. He makes emotions raw and abrupt (everything in Leonard's life is abrupt). He makes every single element of the film a clue to the larger picture (even Leonard's designer clothes hint at pieces of the puzzle yet to be filled in) as the story edges back toward the origins of his quest.
The movie's imposingly gritty, sometimes shadowy visual signature plays as much a role in setting the mood as Pearce's palatable tension and frustration. Yet Nolan isn't afraid of a little humor. "So what am I doing?" Leonard thinks in voiceover when a scene drops him in the middle of a foot chase. "I'm chasing this guy!" Then a bullet whizzes by his head. "No, he's chasing me!"
From time to time, "Memento" has a few convoluted moments that derail the viewer (or at least this viewer). But ultimately those moments serve as one of many motives for seeing this wildly cerebral movie more than once. Like "Fight Club," "The Sixth Sense" or "The Usual Suspects," the surprises in store once "Memento" reaches the "beginning" are so intensely mind-warping that the immediate desire to watch all the puzzle pieces fall into place all over again is almost an involuntary reflex.
Run time: 113 mins
In Theaters: Friday 25th May 2001
Box Office USA: $23.8M
Box Office Worldwide: $39.7M
Distributed by: Newmarket Films
Production compaines: Summit Entertainment, Newmarket Capital Group, Team Todd, I Remember Productions
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Fresh: 154 Rotten: 13
IMDB: 8.5 / 10
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Guy Pearce as Leonard, Carrie-Anne Moss as Natalie, Joe Pantoliano as Teddy Gammell, Mark Boone Junior as Burt, Russ Fega as Waiter, Jorja Fox as Leonard's Wife, Stephen Tobolowsky as Sammy, Harriet Sansom Harris as Mrs. Jankis, Thomas Lennon as Doctor, Callum Keith Rennie as Dodd, Kimberly Campbell as Blonde, Marianne Muellerleile as Tattooist, Larry Holden as Jimmy
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