Review

This is one of the few cases where I can tell you that someone (Joe Pantoliano's character) gets killed at the end of the story, without giving a single thing away. This technique of starting with the ending sometimes annoys me, but in Memento, it's more than effective, it's necessary. Why? Memento starts where the story ends, with sequences running backwards in time, tracing the events that led amnesiac Leonard Shelby (Pearce) to whatever scene we just saw. So, yes, the first scene we see is a death scene, but what we (and, oddly enough, Leonard Shelby) don't know is how it comes to be. Leonard has an unusual form of short-term memory loss that allows him to remember things that happened before a certain point in his life (the murder of his wife), but after that, he only remembers things for a few minutes. Paraphrasing what is said about another character with the disorder, he likes commercials, anything longer is frustrating. The story is told in reverse so that the audience can see every scene the way Leonard does: with no knowledge of how he came to be there. This is not something that would work with most stories (the Seinfeld episode using the same technique was one of the worst of the series). Although the first few minutes are confusing as you get adjusted to the technique, Memento pulls it off, wrapping most of the stories together at their beginnings, with an eerie conclusion.

Guy Pearce is best-known to American audiences for his L.A. Confidential role of clean cop Ed Exley, but with Leonard Shelby, he's found another iconic role (ie, he's going to be "that guy from Memento" instead of "that guy from L.A. Confidential who isn't Russell Crowe"). Pearce has a way of seeming as baffled as he should be, but also with a certain suspicion behind his boy-next-door good looks. In this way, he's like Cary Grant, the man in circumstances beyond his understanding or control, in North by Northwest. Leonard tries to guide his quest (of vengeance for his wife's murder) with tattoos on his body with clues, and carrying snapshots of people and events in his quest (what we don't know is why he lives in motels... though the ending gives us the hint of an idea). As a bartender he meets (Moss) says, he's freaky.

Twisting cause and effect on their conceptual heads, Christopher Nolan's script creates a dream-like state that translates well to cinema as a movie-going experience. When we start watching a movie, we're like Leonard Shelby, without an understanding of what's to come (or rather, what has gone before, chronologically). The cast is kept to a minimum to allow time for each thread to build in reverse (Moss' bartender is particularly fun). One of the things to watch for is that not everyone is necessarily what they appear to be... for a reason. If you knew someone wasn't going to remember you the next time you met, you'd be able to "mess with their minds", pretending to be whatever you want, or not. For the audience, that inherent sense of paranoia ("don't believe his lies", one of Leonard's photo's says) cements the suspense. That the plot structure is so original is what is going to spark word-of-mouth for this film, and by the time it reaches cable and video, it'll be a "cult classic" for sure. You're also going to find a second time around helps to fill in some of the questions you had the first time around, because Memento is a puzzle of a movie... worth solving.



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