|Memento, 2000. Directed by Christopher Nolan.
Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Stephen Tobolowsky, Harriet
Sansom Harris, Jorja Fox, Mark Boone, Jr.
Synopsis: Leonard Shelby has a rare condition: He can no longer make new memories. He lost the ability when his wife was killed and her killer delivered a blow to his head. We meet Leonard just after he kills the man he thinks killed and raped his wife. He holds a Polaroid of his handywork. It fades to nothing. The narrative works backwards from there. Leonard meets people who he cannot remember, but who remember him. He makes notes to remind himself of what he is doing--finding his wife's killer--and of his purpose in life--revenge. The really important stuff--the "facts," as he calls them--he tattoos on his body. Leonard meets and remeets a number of characters--Teddy, who his notes and polaroids tell him he should not trust; Natalie, who his polaroid tells him will help him out of pity; the surly frontman at the motel where he is staying. All the while, Leonard reminds himself of what happened to Sammy Jankins--a man who had a condition like his, who he investigated in his capacity as an insurance investigator. Nobody is what they seem, not even Leonard himself....
The Hard Boiled Time Slip: Had Phillip K. Dick ever turned his mind's eye toward the hard-boiled crime thriller, it might look like this film. Every time we slip into a period of Leonard's awareness, reality shifts. Friends become enemies, enemies become friends, and the very nature of Leonard's quest slowly mutates beyond recognition. By beginning at the end of the story, Director Nolan sets up what could easily become an annoying stylistic conceit and transforms the form of the film into its message. At the end of the film, it is revealed, the fact that Leonard cannot remember the time since his wife was murdered is irrelevant, because his memories of his life before then are unreliable.
Puzzle Pieces: Memento is a puzzle movie at its core and, as such, is difficult to discuss without giving away the store. It is structured in such a way as to slowly reveal the relevant pieces of information. At the end of the film--in this case, the beginning of the story--the final piece of the puzzle is revealed. At least, that's how puzzle movies are SUPPOSED to work. Memento is different. The ending delivers the expected whammy, or seems to anyway, but the expected whammy raises more questions than it answers. The biggest red herring in the movie is Leonard's need to avenge his wife--at the end of the film this is revealed to be meaningless. The events of the film have an ENTIRELY different purpose. But even the meaning of that purpose is subject to debate. If anything, the end of the movie deepens the enigma and raises interesting moral questions that the film is unable to deal with. It is entirely possible that the film has no meaning whatsoever. This will be endlessly debated in the coming years, not least of which because the film has the potential to be profoundly confusing if the viewer isn't paying close attention.
Styling: The structure of Memento is striking. It isn't the first film to present things in a reverse order--the last one I can remember was Atom Egoyan's Exotica--but it is certainly the most integrated film to use the device. Interestingly enough, the film isn't ENTIRELY backwards. Running in parallel to the backwards events of the film is a sequence of interludes filmed in forward time in which Leonard relates the tale of Sammy Jankins. About two thirds of the way through the film, both timestreams fuse. It's a nifty piece of structuring. If film editor Dody Dorn isn't nominated for an Oscar next year, there is no justice. Beyond that, the film has a wierd, depopulated existentialist feeling to it, as if Leonard is actually dead and wandering through some hellish afterlife in which he can't remember things from moment to moment. In this regard, the film seems to be modeling itself after John Boorman's Point Blank. There is a practical reason for depopulating the film, too (there are really only three important speaking parts in the film). It reduces the number of elements for the filmmakers to track backwards in time. Of course, films are usually shot out of sequence anyway, so this might be a consession to the audience.
Performance: Guy Pearce, the film's center, is a cipher. This is appropriate, I suppose, but it makes for a cold center for the movie. Pearce invests his character with a certain charm and likeability, which is helpful, but he is an idea more than he is a character. The other two major parts are played to the hilt. Joe Pantoliano is just about the perfect actor for his part. He is chatty and gregarious, but he is NEVER trustworthy. I wonder how much of this is residual from Pantoliano's other roles (dating back to "Guido the Killer Pimp" in Risky Business). Carrie-Anne Moss is another story. She appears trustworthy when she first appears. As the film progresses, depths of nastiness well up from deep within her character. But good as these two are, the film might well belong to Stephen Todorowski and Harriet Sansom Harris as Sammy Jankins and his wife--doppelgangers of a sort for Leonard and his wife. In a film full of generic, film-noir-ish ciphers, these two are real human beings with a spark of humanity that is absent in the main figures in the movie, all of whom are "a little cold around the heart."