In Christopher Nolan's fiendishly clever thriller, Memento, a young man named Leonard Shelby (played by the Anglo-Australian actor Guy Pearce, who cut his American teeth as the ambitious young police detective in LA Confidential) suffers from a short-term memory deficit severe enough to reduce to embarrassed silence any and all graying boomers who bray about no longer being able to put a name to a face. Not only can Leonard not remember the names of people he's just met, but he also can't recall having met them at all, or for that matter anything that happened earlier than a few minutes ago. Leonard wouldn't know a close friend from a chance acquaintance, which makes him terrifyingly dependent on the ambiguous kindness of strangers, two of whom—a friendly barmaid called Natalie (The Matrix's Carrie-Anne Moss) and a nervously jovial fellow named either Teddy or John (Joe Pantoliano, of same)—appear to be vying to help him avenge himself on the unknown enemy who raped and murdered his wife and left him with the head injury that brought on his condition.
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On one level, Memento, which Nolan (whose second outing this is after making a funky little indie in 1998 called Following) adapted from a short story by his brother Jonathan, is an audacious murder mystery that rests on a neat inversion of the amnesia formula that has propped up so many films noirs. Where your average movie amnesiac has lost his past but creates a new self while waiting to recover it, Leonard remembers, or says he does, every detail of his past up until the trauma. He has an old self—which he relates in periodic black-and-white sequences to an unknown listener on the phone, and which has an eerie relevance to his current predicament—but can't make a new one. Incapable of creating or sustaining new memories, he's left without the tools to groom a more or less viable identity, of the kind that allows most of us to get through the day without succumbing to gibbering paranoia.
Like anyone who finds himself overwhelmed by indeterminacy, Leonard is desperate to establish hard facts. He takes Polaroids and writes endless Post-its to remind himself of whom he meets and the name of the dingy motel where he's staying, and swears by cryptic messages he finds tattooed onto his body in his own handwriting. But without knowledge or a basis for trusting others, he has to gamble on instinct, which may, Nolan implies, be as unreliable as memory. Leonard has to work overtime just to run in place—exhausting for him, but enormous fun for his creator. While Memento may bear the marks of the usual noir obsessions with alienation and mistrust, conceptually the movie has more in common with Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day than it has with Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound. And though Leonard doesn't have the implacable routine of Bill Murray's endlessly repeated day to order his existence, he, too, is marooned in an eternal present—and Nolan gleefully maroons us right there with him. To those of us with a Dorian Gray complex, this may sound like a peak experience, but it's maliciously replete with diffuse anxiety. For most of this exquisitely structured disquisition on the unstructured life, we're kept as much in the dark about Leonard's true identity, and those of his adversaries, as he is. It takes a while to realize that Nolan has his way of feeding us a meta-story, not necessarily in the right order.
In common with many committed stylists, Nolan has trouble getting you to care about his characters. (It seems no accident that two of his actors are cast from The Matrix, a frigid formal exercise if ever there was.) There's a flashback in the movie in which Nolan clearly means to cement our sympathy for the trap in which Leonard, or someone very like him, finds himself. But then the ball is immediately dropped in favor of mere flash artistry. Without Pearce's taut, radiant presence to project the pathos—and the euphoria—of a man hanging on to coherence moment by nerveless moment, Memento would leave you emotionally dry as a bone. Still, for the philosophically inclined, I doubt whether anyone—even in the glory days of film noir—could have come up with a tale as vertiginously relativistic as this one. If nothing else, Memento is a savvy comment on the queasy uncertainties of the postmodern condition, in which history goes no further back than yesterday's news, and knowledge is supplanted by "information" from a tumult of spin-controlled, unreliable narrators.
Memento was directed by Christopher Nolan; written by Nolan, based on the short story by Jonathan Nolan; produced by Jennifer Todd and Suzanne Todd; and stars Guy Pierce, Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano. Now playing at Edwards Town Center, Costa Mesa.