An Unforgettable Mystery
In a mystery film that tops even Alfred Hitchcock's best material, Australian actor Guy Pearce plays ex-insurance investigator Leonard Shelby, an Everyman who wishes for nothing more than to find the man who raped and killed his dear wife (Jorja Fox). The only obstacle standing in Leonard's path is his "condition."
After witnessing his wife's brutal murder, Leonard developed brain damage and later contracted short-term memory loss. He can remember everything up until the incident, but anything after that comes up blank. Leonard cannot create new memories, so he resorts to jotting down clues on scraps of paper, taking Polaroid photos of people and places he encounters, and tattooing the facts he knows about the killer all over his body. Unable to remember things that happened fifteen minutes ago, Leonard is vulnerable to those around him.
Memento is a rare motion picture – one that makes you want to be bamboozled by having your mind messed with and your thoughts turned into a jumbled mess. This is writer/director Christopher Nolan's obvious intention from the start, as Memento announces its uniqueness during the beginning credits, in which a Polaroid photo fades away instead of developing as it should. The film itself is built from the blueprints of a normal mystery, except Nolan makes these changes throughout the building process. The finished result looks a lot different, but the foundation is kept strongly intact.
Memento is told backwards. Yes, backwards. Nolan starts the film off at the end of Leonard's journey and backtracks the events in his script (based upon brother Jonathan's short story) to where the real story begins. And since Leonard often blanks out and can't remember how he got in a current situation, the film is presented in segments, each one ending where the previous one began.
I’ve never seen an intricate, multi-layered mystery film where the twists become more emotionally charged as the story progresses backwards like Memento, and I probably never will. But above all, Nolan plays fair, and although Memento moves backwards, it is in the direction of a truly masterful suspense thriller: the audience knows more at the ending than at the beginning, even if, technically, the ending is the beginning.
Pearce, who burst onto the American film scene with his breakthrough performance as the one good cop in L.A. Confidential, portrays Leonard as a mixture of Jimmy Stewart's Scotty from Vertigo and Jason Bourne, the Richard Chamberlain character in The Bourne Identity. In losing his ability to create impressions in his mind, Leonard has, in a way, also lost the ability to be human. Still, I cheered for him, and I even laughed a bit when he began relating a fact only to realize he's told it to the same person before. Pearce performs brilliantly in a role that requires him to be fixated upon exacting revenge as well as self-assured about his own choppy memory for the duration of the picture. As ambiguous background figures at first, roles played by Carrie Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano gradually expand into intriguing and articulate characters who figure into Leonard's quest rather slyly and efficiently.
Unlike The Sixth Sense, Memento is not the sort of thriller one wants to see again to discover where the director pulled the carpet from underneath your feet. It’s closer to 12 Monkeys, a film in which you’re not quite sure just what happened at the end to set the stage for its own beginning. I found Memento to be fresh, playful, amazing, heart-stopping, and, quite simply, the best film of 2001. (Complete review posted on Adam Hakari's Website.)
My rating: **** (out of ****).
(Released by Columbia TriStar and rated "R" for profanity and violence.)