Since my injury, I can't make new memories... everything fades. If we talk for too long, I'll forget how we started, and the next time we meet, I'm not going to remember ever having this conversation.
Have you ever been at home or at work, gotten up to do something in another room, only to forget a few minutes later why you got up in the first place? That is exactly how that the protagonist of "Memento", Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce of "L.A. Confidential"), feels, only in his case, he experiences it all the time.
You see, Leonard has no short-term memory due to a head blow he suffered while trying to stop the rape and murder of his wife (Jorja Fox of TV's "CSI"). Though he is able to remember everything before the 'incident', he is unable to form new memories, such that each new face, each conversation, and each new fact he learns eventually fades within a matter of minutes. Thus, Leonard essentially lives a life in which the last thing that 'happened' to him (based on his recollection) was finding his wife lying dead on the bathroom floor. Using this fascinating high-concept premise, director Christopher Nolan has crafted an unconventional, mesmerizing, and thought-provoking combination of detective story, film noir, and revenge thriller, making the independent feature "Memento" probably one of the coolest films you will ever see this year... and maybe even the best.
What's the last thing you do remember?
The story is told backwards, starting at the end, and works its way backwards through the narrative in a number of self-contained segments. The opening scene finds Leonard standing over the dead body of a man he has just shot, whom he believes to be his wife's murderer. As the story unravels, peering back into the chain of events that led up to this revenge killing, the audience is provided a number of insights into Leonard's condition, as well as the people he encounters along the way.
I guess I've already told you about my condition.
Oh well, only every time I see you.
Once a mild-mannered insurance investigator, Leonard now devotes his days to tracking down his wife's killer, a man known only as 'John G.'. Unfortunately, because of his condition, the only way he can 'remember' things is to refer to a stack of Polaroid pictures, scribbled notes, as well as the tattoos on his body where he records the facts he has gathered during his investigation. Even with the notes, his investigation is challenged by his memory 'resetting' every few minutes, resulting in a slow process of re-discovery and getting up to speed in terms of what he should be doing next, if anything.
During his investigation, he crosses paths with two people, who are apparently helping him. The person he has most contact with is Teddy (Joe Pantoliano of "The Matrix"), who has a knack for showing up everywhere, offering friendly advice or a clue to move the investigation forward. The other person is Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss, also of "The Matrix"), a woman who has also lost a loved one and with some troubles of her own.
When you find this guy, what are you going to do?
I'm going to kill him.
Unfortunately, as the story edges closer to the beginning, it becomes readily apparent that initial impressions may be deceiving, and that Leonard's supposed allies may actually be trying to manipulate him into killing the wrong man. Furthermore, it seems that Leonard's system for documenting everything is not as airtight as he would like to believe, casting serious doubt on the 'facts' that he has captured in Polaroids or tattoos. As the film careens wildly towards the beginning of the story, the only thing you can be sure of is that there is absolutely nothing you can be sure of.
Who did this to you?
The use of a non-linear narrative is nothing new, as it has been used in the past by directors such as Atom Egoyan ("Exotica") and Wong Kar-Wai ("In the Mood for Love") to slowly reveal relationships among characters and circle the story back to a key precipitating event. It has also been used by directors such as Quentin Tarantino as a pure storytelling gimmick, as he did in both "Pulp Fiction" and "Jackie Brown". "Memento", however, is perhaps the most fascinating and judicious use of a non-linear narrative, since it puts the audience into the shoes of the protagonist.
At the beginning of the film (which is the end of the story), the audience shares Leonard's level of insight into the situation-- a man lies dead on the floor, and neither Leonard nor the audience have a clue as to what led up to such a violent act, or if he even shot the right person. And as the film moves backwards through time, the audience experiences each new revelation, both good and bad, as well as the emotions associated with them, for the very first time, which is exactly how Leonard perceives it. This skillful emotional manipulation and reversal is most effectively illustrated in Leonard's relationship with Natalie, as well as the film's carefully constructed ending (which is actually the 'beginning' of the story). Not surprisingly, "Memento" also holds up well in repeat viewings, since it is an intellectual puzzle that rewards the astute viewer with a foreknowledge of where the story is going.
Aside from offering up a mind-bending storytelling device, Leonard's lack of short-term memory also furnishes a layer of metaphor to the story, calling to mind the links between memory, individuality, and existence explored in films such as "Blade Runner", "Ashes of Time", and more recently, "The 6th Day". As more is revealed about Leonard, it is evident that he is no different from the average person, who will alter their recollection of past events, as well as their role in them, to better fit with their own worldview. And given that the last memory he ever made (his wife dying) continues to haunt him, Leonard is also no different from those who have suffered catastrophic loss and find themselves unable to move forward lives because of it, such as the loss of a loved one.
In a way, Leonard is very much a cross between two of the standard archetypes found in the films of Wong Kar-wai, the 'blind mourner' and the 'carefree wanderer'. The 'blind mourner' is in a constant state of emotional paralysis, arising from their inability to forget the pain of a past relationship, and as a result of their fixation, they miss the opportunities of the present and fail to notice the progression of time. On the other hand, the 'carefree wanderer' is oblivious to history and has no appreciation for the lessons of the past. As a result, their ill-conceived actions end up destroying the lives of the people they meet, as well as their own. Like the archetypal fixtures he embodies, Leonard is unable to shake his thirst for vengeance, which gives his life a sense of purpose, while at the same time, he is unable to learn from his more recent experience. Thus, Leonard's existence winds up being a tragic state of stagnation, driven by the past with no care for the present or the future.
Okay, what's going on here? I must be chasing this guy... no, he's chasing me!
With respect to performances, Guy Pearce does some 'memorable' work in "Memento", delivering a credible and compelling performance of a man who essentially 'wakes up' every few minutes and has no idea where he is or what he is doing. Even when Leonard's condition is used to inject humor into the story (which is done on numerous occasions), Pearce doesn't miss a beat with his sly comic timing. Moss, who has been broadening her dramatic range with films like "Chocolat", is similarly impressive as the film's resident femme fatale, while Pantoliano's portrayal of Teddy will raise more questions than it answers-- though his character does offer up some answers, Pantoliano plays the role in a manner that leaves it up to audience interpretation as to whether or not he's telling the truth.
With its unique narrative structure, brilliant execution, and thought-provoking premise, there is little doubt in my mind that "Memento" will be considered to be one of the most memorable films of 2001. In a moviegoing market dominated by predictable rehashes of well-tread genres, it is a delight to come across a film like "Memento", which aptly illustrates how a film can still surprise and intrigue its audience, even if it is the second- or third-time around.