I really should know more about modern Hollywood than I do, but it irritates me so often that I don't have the same enthusiasm for knowledge about it as I do the rest of film history. Really, I would rather do research on the Three Stooges' stock company than try and commit to memory who directed THE WEDDING CRASHERS or IRON MAN. However, put me down as a fan of director Christopher Nolan. I knew that he had directedas well as its superior sequel , but, by blind coincidence, on the same day I rented BATMAN BEGINS to review, I also picked up MEMENTO (THE NOTEBOOK, LOGAN'S RUN and THE ISLAND, my three backup films, were unavailable). Little did I know that MEMENTO was also directed by Chris Nolan. And after two minutes of research, I discovered that THE PRESTIGE, a film I also enjoyed more than the usual Hollywood fare, was also directed by Chris Nolan. He also writes or cowrites most of his screenplays. He is an interesting talent that needs watching. And remembering.
Remembering, or rather, not remembering, is what MEMENTO is all about. Leonard, an insurance investigator, is trying to track down the man who raped and murdered his wife, but he has one huge problem - due to a blow to back of the head on the night of the murder, he cannot retain anything in his long-term memory. Thus, he can recall everything that happened up in his life up to that night but otherwise, every five or ten minutes a new day begins for him. He literally cannot make new memories. He keeps his investigation going by constantly taking Polaroids, writing things down, even having important facts tattooed onto his own body.
The film plays out event in reverse, beginning with the moment Leonard finds the man he is looking for. It then shows us how he found the man, the events that lead to that moment, the events that lead to the events that lead to that moment, and so on back through time (days? weeks? the film doesn't say). We are always brought to a new starting point in Leonard's life, the moment when his short-term memory has once again wiped itself clean and he finds himself in some situation he has no understanding of. Scenes will begin with Leonard narrating, saying things like "Okay, who is this guy? Am I chasing him? Oh, he's chasing me!". Scenes will lead to the beginning of the scene we just saw before the scene we are watching, and then jump back even further in time.
If it sounds confusing, hell yes, it is, but in a good way. Like, THE SIXTH SENSE and VANTAGE POINT, MEMENTO forces you to keep your own mind running, trying to piece together what is going on. Let your mind wander at any moment and you may become totally lost, scrambling to catch up, just as Leonard does. We are introduced to two main characters in Leonard's life - a man and a woman both seemingly trying to help him - yet we are told little about them besides their names. Can we trust them? Can Leonard? To add to the confusion, we have Leonard, our hero, who is narrating his story to us, yet who cannot remember anything he did five minutes ago. Is his word even trustworthy? Is anything we think is going on actually going on?
MEMENTO is not a star vehicle. Plot rides above everything and all the actors serve the story. Guy Pearce, Carrie-Ann Moss and Joe Pantoliano ("Joey Pants" as he is affectionately known in my family) have all been around for years but have never become major stars, making it easy for us to accept them as strangers whose pasts we can never be sure of. (When you see Michael Caine or Morgan Freeman in the Nolan Batman films, do you ever think of them as anything but Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman?).
A modern-day film noir with some neat twists and turns, MEMENTO is the kind of film M. Knight Shyamalan dreams of making but cannot remember how to these days. Shymalan's endings are now all gimmicks, ones we can usually see coming ten minutes into the film. MEMENTO's ending is nearly unpredictable and is not there to shock or surprise, but just to remind us just how amazingly, insufferably and endlessly complex life can be, even if we think we know what is going on. ½ - JB