Leonard Shelby, staring at a developed Polaroid of a man he just murdered, watches the snapshot fade white before it is placed back inside the camera. Bloody wounds heal; bullets then retract from the deceased, sucked back into a handgun, quickly concealed in the waistline of Leonard’s pants, as the recently murdered man comes to life, to his feet, and an argument ensues. In Christopher Nolan’s intricate and well-conceived Memento, this first scene is the endpoint — thereafter, time’s arrow darts backward.
In a haute khaki suit, driving a Jaguar convertible, Leonard (Guy Pearce) is on a quest, a mission of vengeance. Haunted by physical and mental anguish, he is driven to find the man (or men) who raped and murdered his wife. He studies the police reports, takes notes, photographs, asks questions. However, one rather sizable complication hinders his investigation: for any event occurring after his life-altering trauma, he has no short-term memory, forgetting encounters only moments after they occur.
“The world doesn’t just disappear when you close your eyes,” Leonard says matter-of-factly. In spite of this statement, parts of Leonard’s world constantly vanish, as he introduces himself to the same people repeatedly, ingenuously explaining his condition to them manifold times as if he never had before. Waking each morning, he has no recognition of his previous day’s actions, relying on habit, routine, and instinct to derive “facts” — what he scribbles down, snaps photographs of, and has tattooed upon his torso and limbs to guide his pursuit. He often speaks of Sammy Jankis, a name permanently scribbled on his hand, a figure from a case he recollects to have worked on (as an insurance investigator), drawing similarities to his own current experiences.
To his benefit (or detriment), Leonard guides himself by the rules of logic, proving facts by immediately establishing truths and falsities, looking to establish syllogisms. First impressions are the key, as he trusts only what is written down.
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan (and adapted from the short story Memento Mori by his brother Jonathan), Memento resonates as an existentialist mystery. Shot with the film-noir aesthetic of the 1940s and 50s in mind, a dusty palette of grays and browns convey the mysteriousness and isolation of Leonard and his labyrinthine probe. The sudden flashbacks, parallel recollections and intertwining of sequences exhibit Nolan’s strong sense of craft, creating a dark world, as strange and carefully constructed as Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects and David Lynch’s Lost Highway.
Guy Pearce, the focal fixture of Memento, is compelling as Leonard, playing a complex character eerily well: mysterious and heartfelt, neurotic and intense. Working from a superior script, the strapping Pearce strikes the right balance of assertion and contradiction, making him a sympathetic though questionable figure. One of the film’s many enigmas, he adds an extra facet of complication to the darkness and obscurity of this milieu.
Joining him in this timeless maze of Southern Californian boulevards, strip malls and roach motels, dive bars and dust-ridden abandoned lots are Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), an ebullient oddball who may or may not be a cop, and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), a vexing barmaid, likewise complicated and redefined by the revelations of each successive flashback.
These disclosures never seem to reveal truth, however, as even irrefutable facts merely lead to more questions. Memory, that most unreliable of muses, proves yet again that nothing is certain: anything seen or interpreted is subjective, debatable.
The ending, or rather “beginning,” lacks the emotional punch that it could have delivered, and that is carefully and intensely sustained through much of the film. In the “beginning,” as the haze enveloping this maze clears, the resolution almost feels empty, a contrived solution, an arbitrary stoppage, as forgettable as any acquaintance or new experience is to Leonard. The draw lies largely in wondering what would come before it.
In spite of this, Nolan’s Memento is an ambitious and artful film, a crux, intricate and web-like. Deftly acted and directed, Memento awes and bewilders, often skillfully intermingling inconsistencies and resolutions, manipulating time and space, blurring artifice and reality.
Archived article by L. Weiss