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Watching writer-director Christopher Nolans new thriller Memento is like doing a particularly tough Sunday
Times crossword puzzle. It offers an elegantly structured mystery thats meaty enough
to keep you chewing on it for most of its running time. Its unpredictable, sleek,
and gives its characters some nice, punchy lines to throw at each other. But its
also a relatively heartless film, so caught up in its plot details that its final
resolution doesnt leave much of a mark. Its a film that leaves you saying
Wow and So what? at the same time.
Memento is built around Guy Pearces alert performance as Leonard Shelby, an insurance investigator whose wife was raped and murdered in the couples house one night. Leonard received a brutal head injury in the attack, and its robbed him of his short-term memory, leaving him incapable of forming a memory of anything thats happened since the moment of his wifes death. Unable to understand what hes doing for more than a few minutes at a time, hes built his life around the one image that still has any meaning for him: his wifes lifeless expression. Hes determined to find her killer and avenge her murder, but he has to keep in mind all the myriad clues hes uncovereda tough nut for someone stuck in the present tense. Nor does it help that hes surrounded by people whose loyalties keep shifting from moment to moment: the shady and sarcastic Teddy (Joe Pantoliano); Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss), a jaded bartender whose drug-dealing boyfriend has gone missing; and Burt (Mark Boone, Jr.), the raffish manager of the motel where Leonard lives.
Leonard keeps his facts straight the only way he can. He snaps pictures of everyone he has dealings with, and gives each photo a caption indicating the level of trust he should feel for each person. (These captions are subject to heavy revision.) A chronic note-taker, his motel room is strewn with written reminders of everything he must bear in mind. And the most important facts in his lifethe things he believes to be certainties about his wifes assailanthe tattoos onto his body so that he can reacquaint himself with the case on a moment to moment basis.
Mysteries by nature have a poison pill built into them. The very things that make a good mystery interestingthe inexplicable events, the incongruous clueshave a surrealistic hit thats almost always undercut when the humdrum explanation comes out. Usually were told in a few breathless lines of dialogue near the end that the physical laws of nature have been turned upside down, and the rules of human behavior inverted, all because some moneygrubber was trying to run a con. Its a letdown when the mysteries of the universe are so easily explained away by a shabby inheritance, a roll of microfilm, a kilo of uncut heroin. How do you satisfactorily explain vanishing footprints, or a body that has India ink in its veins? How do you keep escapist whimsy from falling apart in its last fifteen minutes?
Nolan knows all this, and hes done what he can to mitigate the problem. Mementos kicker is that it reveals Leonards story to us in reverse, beginning with the death of a major character and working backwards in time, scene by scene, towards the attack on Leonard and his wife. At the same time, running against the grain of the main narrative, is a flashback told in linear fashion about the target of one of Leonards old insurance fraud investigations. This man (Stephen Tobolowsky, whos making a career of popping up in surprising places) suffers from the same malady as Leonard, and his story revolves around the grief felt by his wife (Harriet Harris, in the films best performance) over losing the man she once loved. As Memento moves towards its conclusion, this sub-narrative casts an increasingly longer shadow over Leonard Shelbys dilemma, until the two stories converge on an unexpected plane.
Using the reverse narrative displaces the focus from Leonards banal quest for vengeance, so that the pedestrian concern of Who killed Mrs. Shelby? never overwhelms the movie. It makes room for such commonsensical paradoxes as Natalies observation Even if you get revenge youre not even going to know that it happened, and adds a melancholy, transitory flavor to Leonards relationships. (Even the people who dont like him are distressed when he keeps forgetting who they are.) It also forces us to view the movies events through Leonards eyes: when a scene opens with him sitting on a toilet with a bottle of booze in his hand, we have no more idea than he does how he came to be there. Were constantly waiting for the end of the next scene to understand the one that were watching, and the movies noveltyseeing how Leonard Shelby came by the scars, clothes, and even the haircut that he first appears inlies in its graphic demonstration of the (reversed) axiom: If a gun is fired in the first act, then it must appear in the third act.
Memento probably merits neither the scorn its sure to receive from people turned off by its hype or paper-thin characters, nor the wild praise its already receiving for its unconventional narrative. Its not close to being a Chinatown or The Third Man, but its good enough to help tide us over until the next great mystery comes along. That said, if it offers all the pleasures of a tough crossword puzzle, its rewards run not that much deeper. Near the end of its run, Seinfeld broadcast a episode that told its story in reverse chronology, and in 23 brilliant minutes seemed to exhaust the device as it (unlike Memento) moved from obscurity to clarity. Absent the bloodletting, and with only George Costanzas sexual pride at stake, the show revealed the idea for what it is: a lark.
- Tom Block