Memento

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

MEMENTO

9/10

US 2000
dir & scr Christopher Nolan, based on the short story by Jonathan Nolan
cin Wally Pfister
stars Guy Pearce, Carrie-Ann Moss, Joe Pantoliano
116 minutes

Memento is drastically different from – and better than – just about any other film released this year. It somehow pulls off the feat of being stunningly clever without ever being smart-arse – the kind of thing The Usual Suspects strained so desperately towards, only to fall short.

Guy Pearce is Leonard Shelby, a man suffering from short-term memory loss. He suffered a blow to the head some while back, and since when he hasn’t been able to retain any new memories. The last thing he remembers is the rape and murder of his wife – and he’s out for vengeance, writing endless notes, taking endless polaroids, tattooing permanent mementos all over his body as he pieces together the puzzle… or does he?

Memento tells Leonard’s story backwards. Literally so in the visually remarkable opening scene, in which Pearce is shown blowing a man’s brains out in reverse. From this point the movie moves simultaneously back and forth in time, as each ‘new’ scene in shown in retrograde order, interspersed with what we realise is, chronologically speaking, the first scene. The audience is thus placed in exactly the same position as Leonard, and we have to try to retain everything we’ve learned so far – except the movie is all about the unreliability of memory, and how it’s impossible to be sure about anything or anybody, even ourselves.

This is a paranoid, existentialist thriller that deftly explores the way movies tell stories and manipulate characters – a bit like The Game, on an intimate, psychological scale, and it is a delicious game, with repeated jokes, catch-phrases, images, rules, its few characters moving around in a restricted geographical space. It’s about the way movies release information, and how we retain what we’re told, and organise it in ways that make sense. Though Memento is essentially dark, there’s a lot of humour here – it’s at least as much Groundhog Day as it is Angel Heart. Any film based on this script would be fascinating, but Nolan does more than just film it – he uses it as a starting point to bring a world to life, to show a new way of experiencing the world.

Nolan sets his action in an especially anonymous backwater of Los Angeles. No landmarks, nothing to stick in the memory, everything wiped blank by the constant sunshine, the unending background rumble of traffic. It’s anywhere, nowhere and everywhere, and as such it could only really be LA, though this is an LA we’ve never really seen before. Nolan’s touch is so graceful, so off-hand, he penetrates the gimmickry of the basic concept and gets to the emotional truth that makes it all worthwhile, aided by flawless performances from Pearce, Pantoliano, and, best of all, the sphinx-faced Moss.

Few films make the audience work so hard, but the results are worth the effort: startling formal innovation, mindbending intricacy, belly laughs, real pathos, constant surprises. By any standards, a remarkable movie, made to be remembered.

by Neil Young