Backward Unreels the Thriller
“Memento,” Latin for remember, means a reminder of the past, something that can be used to prod the memory or warn about the future. Which makes it an apt and poignant title for writer-director Christopher Nolan’s exceptional new film, a haunting, nervy thriller about a man who can remember nothing at all.
That would be Leonard Shelby (compellingly played by “L.A. Confidential’s” Guy Pearce), a former insurance investigator with a peculiar and devastating mental condition; a blow to the head as he was grappling with the men who raped and murdered his wife cost him the ability to create short-term memories.
So while Leonard can recall everything up to that brutal moment, nothing more recent stays in his head for more than a few fleeting minutes. He wakes up in rooms and can’t remember where he is or why he’s there. He finds himself in chases not knowing if he’s the hunter or the prey. Even such simple questions as “They treating you OK?” get a frank “I don’t remember” as a response.
Ordinary life would be daunting enough with this handicap, but Leonard is after something more. Determined to avenge his wife’s death, desperate for certainties that no longer exist, he has become a kind of defective detective, obsessively focused on seeing justice done even though he won’t be able to retain its memory should it happen. “Just because there are things I don’t remember,” he insists, “doesn’t make my actions meaningless.”
“Memento’s” intriguing premise is adapted from a short story by Nolan’s brother Jonathan, which was in turn based on a real condition called anterograde memory loss, which Oliver Sacks, among others, has written about. Nolan has retained his interest in the nature of identity and the fracturing of time that characterized his first feature, the unnerving “Following,” and added riffs on the possibility and meaning of revenge.
More than a film of ideas, however, “Memento” is a provocatively structured and thrillingly executed film noir, an intricate, inventive use of cinema’s possibilities that pushes what can be done on screen in an unusual direction.
Intent on telling the story subjectively, in a way that mirrors Leonard’s point of view, Nolan in effect constructed a despairing backward thriller, a film that starts at the end (a bit like Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal”) and works its way back to the beginning. Yet, paradoxically, the more we find out, the more pieces we can identify, the less we can be sure just what the truth is.
“Memento” begins with a scene that encapsulates what is to come. A man is looking at a just-developed Polaroid picture of a corpse. Suddenly, the photo starts to undevelop and goes back into the camera, the bullet goes back into the gun and the victim is alive and talking. In a similar way, the film’s plot line moves backward from that corpse on the floor to reveal the series of events that led to its being there.
Polaroids, it turns out, are one of the keys to Leonard’s life. They’re the only way he can remember what cheap motel he’s staying in and, when combined with what he’s written on the backs of the photos, they’re his only clue to who he knows and what he knows about them.
There is, for instance, the effusive, inscrutable Teddy (“The Matrix’s” Joe Pantoliano), who seems to understand more about Leonard than the man does himself. And the femme fatale barmaid Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss, also a “Matrix” veteran) is another enigmatic character; on the back of her photo are the words “She will help you out of pity.”
Most provocatively, Leonard has key information, stuff he cannot afford to forget, tattooed on his body, some of it backward so it can be read in a mirror. There’s also room on his body for chilling aphorisms such as “Consider the Source,” “Memory Is Treachery,” and the potent “Find Him and Kill Him.”
In a series of monologues spoken to an unknown person on the telephone, Leonard reveals that much of how he interfaces with the world, his discipline and his organization, are the result of insights gained during his insurance investigation of the case of Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky) a man with a condition very similar to his own.
We learn this, as we learn everything else, in fragments. For in addition to telling the story backward, Nolan makes use of an ingenious narrative structure. “Memento’s” every scene starts the way it does for Leonard, with a sense of “where am I” confusion. But, after throwing us into the middle of things, the film in effect takes a step back, showing us the context for the action we’ve just seen, in effect giving us the information Leonard has forgotten.
This is a storytelling method that not only rewards but demands the closest kind of attention, and Nolan himself has said that though he has an excellent visual memory and has seen his film about a thousand times, “if I walk into a screening when the film’s been on for 20 minutes, even I don’t know what scene is coming next.”
A key factor in the success of “Memento” (in addition to Wally Pfister’s mesmerizing photography and Dody Dorn’s sharp editing) is the exceptional performance of Pearce in what has to be an extremely challenging role. His lost yet purposeful Leonard walks a fascinating, horrifying line, a virile Mr. Magoo who still goes through life with the confidence in himself he gained while he was whole even though that kind of faith is now far from justified.
In fact, the more we see of Leonard, the more we learn about his life, the more the film’s tension and suspense become close to unbearable as we understand the potential that exists to play with his mind. We naturally empathize with and worry about a man who says, “How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?” Yet the unease we feel for him is something special, as different from usual movie tension as “Memento” itself is from the run-of-the-mill thrillers it so artfully rises above.
* MPAA rating: R, for violence, language and some drug content. Times guidelines: The intensity is more disturbing than the actual violence.
Guy Pearce: Leonard Shelby
Carrie-Anne Moss: Natalie
Joe Pantoliano: Teddy
Mark Boone Jr.: Burt
Stephen Tobolowsky: Sammy Jankis
Jorja Fox: Leonard’s wife
Harriet Harris: Mrs. Jankis
In association with Summit Entertainment, a Team Todd production, released by Newmarket. Director Christopher Nolan. Producers Jennifer Todd & Suzanne Todd. Executive producer Aaron Ryder. Screenplay Christopher Nolan, based on a short story by Jonathan Nolan. Cinematographer Wally Pfister. Editor Dody Dorn. Costumes Cindy Evans. Music David Julian. Production design Patti Podesta. Set decorator Danielle Berman. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
In limited release.