A disease like diabetes can be treated with insulin, but, for a severe
short-term memory loss problem, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce, L.A.
CONFIDENTIAL) turns to more unusual aids than drugs, namely Polaroid
pictures, a ballpoint pen to write notes on his skin and a mass of
Christopher Nolan's MEMENTO is easily the most bizarrely original film
since BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. Opening with the Polaroid picture of a
murdered body, the movie shows the photo slowly undevelop and shoot back
into the camera. This turns out to be the ending of the story. The
movie skips backwards and forwards thereafter with pieces of scenes
being repeated, showing more context each time. The viewers find
themselves absolutely mesmerized as they piece together this film which
is like a jigsaw puzzle of an Escher print in which pieces keep
disappearing and reappearing. Flaunting its ambiguity, almost every
scene is open to alternate interpretations. And each new scene adds
combinatorial possibilities to the explanations of previous scenes.
People who like puzzles will adore this movie, as will all moviegoers
who relish intelligent scripts that challenge their gray matter.
One of the many questions that the film poses is whether Leonard killed
the right man, the man who raped and murdered his wife and who caused
his infamous accident. After the blow to his head caused by his wife's
murderer, Leonard has a short-term memory that lasts only seconds. He
remembers everything before the accident but nothing after. This makes
a man who knows who he was but not who he is. It also makes him prey to
the unscrupulous. Spit in his beer, or much worse, and a minute later
he will remember nothing about the incident.
Leonard takes pictures of his car and his motel so that he will be able
to find them. On these visual note cards, he also makes important
written notes to himself. On Teddy's (Joe Pantoliano) picture, for
example, he reminds himself not to believe his lies. He no longer
remembers what caused him to record this warning and how accurate it
might be. His body is a walking billboard of personal reminders to
himself. In mirror image across his chest, he has written, "John G.
raped and murdered my wife." And on his arm, he has tattooed, "Don't
answer the phone." As Leonard says, "Memory is treachery."
Told in heavy narration, the most common question Leonard finds himself
asking is, "Where am I?" One of the places he finds himself waking is
in the bed of Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss, THE MATRIX), whose place in his
life changes as rapidly as does Teddy's. Trying to fit these two into
Leonard's story becomes a fascinating exercise for the audience as the
story keeps doubling back on itself.
Although an edge-of-the-seat thriller, it is frequently quite funny.
Leonard wakes in his cheap motel one morning to find a gun in the drawer
next to the Gideon Bible and a guy tied up in the closet. When Teddy
asks him about whether the gun belongs to him or the guy in closet,
Leonard says, "Must have been his. I don't think they'd let someone
like me own a gun."
The film also contains an intriguing back story about Leonard. It seems
that before he went bonkers, he was an insurance investigator. One of
the claims he looked into was from the wife of a guy named Sammy
(Stephen Tobolowsky), who had the same type short-term memory loss
problem that Leonard developed. Serving both as a story in its own
right and as a mechanism to explain Leonard's illness, this is one of
the best subplots in a long time.
Although it is a brilliantly conceived and executed movie, there are a
few disappointments: the ending is a bit of a letdown and the film would
have been crisper if the storyline had had a few less iterations. These
are minor quibbles, and this is the sort of picture that is so
engrossing that you'll want to come back and see it again soon.
Probably a couple of times more.
MEMENTO runs 1:48. It is rated R for violence, language and some drug
content and would be acceptable for most teenagers.
Copyright © 2001 Steve Rhodes