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Watching writer-director Christopher Nolan’s new thriller Memento is like doing a particularly tough Sunday Times crossword puzzle. It offers an elegantly structured mystery that’s meaty enough to keep you chewing on it for most of its running time. It’s unpredictable, sleek, and gives its characters some nice, punchy lines to throw at each other. But it’s also a relatively heartless film, so caught up in its plot details that its final resolution doesn’t leave much of a mark. It’s a film that leaves you saying “Wow” and “So what?” at the same time.
Memento is built around Guy Pearce’s alert performance as Leonard Shelby, an insurance investigator whose wife was raped and murdered in the couple’s house one night. Leonard received a brutal head injury in the attack, and it’s robbed him of his short-term memory, leaving him incapable of forming a memory of anything that’s happened since the moment of his wife’s death. Unable to understand what he’s doing for more than a few minutes at a time, he’s built his life around the one image that still has any meaning for him: his wife’s lifeless expression. He’s determined to find her killer and avenge her murder, but he has to keep in mind all the myriad clues he’s uncovered—a tough nut for someone stuck in the present tense. Nor does it help that he’s 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 life—the things he believes to be certainties about his wife’s assailant—he 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 interesting—the inexplicable events, the incongruous clues—have a surrealistic hit that’s almost always undercut when the humdrum explanation comes out. Usually we’re 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. It’s 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 he’s done what he can to mitigate the problem. Memento’s kicker is that it reveals Leonard’s 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 Leonard’s old insurance fraud investigations. This man (Stephen Tobolowsky, who’s 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 film’s 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 Shelby’s dilemma, until the two stories converge on an unexpected plane.
Using the reverse narrative displaces the focus from Leonard’s 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 Natalie’s observation “Even if you get revenge you’re not even going to know that it happened,” and adds a melancholy, transitory flavor to Leonard’s relationships. (Even the people who don’t like him are distressed when he keeps forgetting who they are.) It also forces us to view the movie’s events through Leonard’s 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. We’re constantly waiting for the end of the next scene to understand the one that we’re watching, and the movie’s novelty—seeing how Leonard Shelby came by the scars, clothes, and even the haircut that he first appears in—lies 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 it’s sure to receive from people turned off by its hype or paper-thin characters, nor the wild praise it’s already receiving for its unconventional narrative. It’s not close to being a Chinatown or The Third Man, but it’s 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 Costanza’s sexual pride at stake, the show revealed the idea for what it is: a lark.
– Tom Block