Not since The Matrix or have I been so flabbergasted by the originality of a film.
You remember that Seinfeld episode where Elaine and the guys go to India for Elaine’s friend’s wedding? Remember how it was told backwards by scene? Well then you have a good idea what to expect with the new-wave noir Memento.
What Seinfeld won’t prepare you for (not that there’s anything wrong with that) is just how truly excellent this film is. Not since The Matrix or The Sixth Sense have I been so flabbergasted by the originality of a film’s story and technique.
Here, the technique is borderline hackneyed. Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce, better here than he was in L.A. Confidential) has a strange memory problem. His condition is somewhat like Dana Carvey’s in Clean Slate, but again this is no comedy. Leonard saw his wife murdered and himself was attacked by the burglars. Ever since, he can’t seem to make new memories, forgetting people he just met. Not to be confused with amnesia, he remembers who he is and who his wife was. Her death is his only reason for living these days.
But that’s not where the catchy gimmick stops. To put the viewer squarely in the shoes of Leonard, writer/director Christopher Nolan tells the story backwards. Like American Beauty, the first thing we find out is that a lead character, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano, of Matrix fame), bites the bullet. The entire opening credits is a slyly framed close-up of a Polaroid developing in reverse. Leonard is shaking the picture of the body as it slowly disappears. Even the URL of the film’s official Flash-heavy website is backwards (www.otnemem.com).
Where Memento really excels is its methodical unwinding of who these characters were before the conclusion (introduction?). Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss, also hot off her Matrix fame) and Teddy teeter on friend or foe, depending on how you interpret Leonard’s surroundings.
This ensemble cast fill the bill for a classic noir tale: seedy characters, a revenge story, a wronged man searching for justice. It’s Nolan’s method that makes this film so fresh and intriguing. In revealing to the audience in layered glimpses the stages of Leonard’s mission, we have an idea what perpetual short term memory is like.
Or is it more than that? Perhaps Nolan is commenting on the subjectivity of memory. It’s no coincidence that a name or phone number might elude us. As Leonard observes of his condition, houses can change color and cars can change model as recalled from memory. For the same reason, says Leonard, police don’t rely on line-ups for convictions. Facts, on the other hand, are Leonard’s saving grace.
As if he were coaching himself through his illness, Leonard writes to himself in the second person, scrawling notes on photographs. For instance, he takes a picture of his hotel to remind himself where he’s staying the next time he forgets where home is (“You have to have a system, otherwise you won’t make it.”). On every appendage are tattooed the more permanent notes that he can’t afford to lose. One arm tells him the basics of his fugitive:
Fact 1: Male
Fact 2: White
Fact 2: First Name: John or James
Fact 4: Last name: G__
Probably the most fascinating aspect of the film is that if not for the fragmentation of the story tempered by Leonard’s point of view, Memento wouldn’t work as a crime thriller. It’s precisely the ambiguity that makes it a masterpiece. Amazingly, there is a great amount of tension, suspense, and intrigue in its reversed story arch. Despite knowing the end initially, the final act (beginning?) is all the more satisfying. As Kramer often said, “you just blew my mind!”
Now, where was I? I forget what we were talking about. Oh, yes, Memento. It’s like that episode of Seinfeld where they go to India…