Memento (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Memory - it is one of the key elements that separates human beings from animals. It is one of the basic building blocks of personality. Who we are is shaped as much by our experiences as by our environment. Memory can also be unreliable, not to mention easily influenced. Ask three people to describe the same event, and none of those accounts will be the same. But, although memories are skewed by perspective, they are critical to the human experience. Memento is very much concerned with all aspects of memory, especially the manipulation of it, and this endlessly fascinating, wonderfully open-ended motion picture will be remembered by many who see it as one of the best films of the year.

When I initially saw Memento at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, where it played in competition, I recognized this as a shoo-in for a spot on my year's end Top 10 list. There's no way this film could miss. Had it been released last year, it would have landed in the #1 or #2 position (right ahead of or behind Requiem for a Dream). This is a great motion picture, and, as an added bonus, it has a tremendous "replayability", meaning that subsequent viewings are almost as rewarding as the first. The only downside is that, with a small distributor like Newmarket Capital Group, it may be difficult to find, especially for those who don't live near major metropolitan areas.

Memento stars Austalian actor Guy Pearce (one of the crossdressers in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and the "straight" guy L.A. Confidential) as Leonard Shelby, a former insurance investigator and crime victim who is trying to find the man who raped and murdered his wife (Jorja Fox). His goal is simple - he wants revenge through execution. Nothing less will satisfy him. But there's a small matter that complicates Leonard's investigation. He has no short term memory. During the attack that ended his wife's life, Leonard suffered brain damage. Now, although his long-term memory is fine, he can't remember any recent events. He can meet the same person a hundred times and won't know their name or who they are. To combat his condition, Leonard relies upon a series of annotated Polaroid snapshots - not exactly the ideal tool by which to seek out a killer who even the police can't locate. Along the way, Leonard is aided (or perhaps hindered) by the ubiquitous Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), who is always on hand to offer advice, and he becomes involved with the mysterious Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss), whose motives may not be as straightforward as they initially appear to be.

Memento doesn't stop with a great premise. In fact, what really distinguishes this film is its brilliant, innovative structure. Nolan has elected to tell the story backwards. He starts at the end and finishes near the beginning. The main narrative is presented as a series of three-to-eight minute segments, each of which ends where the previous one began. A second thread, which starts at an unspecified time in the past and moves forward to intersect with the main storyline, is used to buffer the "reverse" segments as well as to provide background information. (It also tells the important "Sammy Jankis" story, which becomes increasingly important the deeper we get into the film.) Although this approach might at first seem confusing, it doesn't take long to get used to it, and to understand how well it works with this material.

By presenting events in Memento backwards, Nolan allows us to get into the mindset of the main character. Like Leonard, we don't have a clear indication of what happened before the current segment of time. We know some things from the past, but not the recent past. Like him, we are presented with numerous cryptic clues, some of which may mean something other than what they initially appear to represent. And, although it might seem that an approach which reveals the story's conclusion in the first five minutes would lack tension, that's far from the case. Memento builds to a surprising yet completely logical finale, and there's plenty of suspense along the way to keep the viewer riveted.

Those who enjoyed the dubious pleasure of piecing together the plot of The Sixth Sense in retrospect will be delighted by Memento, which only reveals the entire landscape when the end credits start rolling. Unlike The Sixth Sense, however, Memento does not rely upon an easily-predicted twist ending to give the storyline meaning. This movie is constructed as a series of clever and logical revelations. It builds to the final scene rather than attempting to ambush us. In addition, since many aspects of Memento can be interpreted in more than one way (for example, during one critical conversation, it's up to each audience member to determine whether or not Teddy is telling the truth - Nolan does not offer a "definitive" answer), it's possible for one movie-goer to have a completely different vision of the film's backstory than the person sitting next to him/her.

In some ways, Memento can almost be described as anti-Groundhog Day. (The presence of Stephen Tobolowsky in supporting roles in both movies strengthens the connection.) Both pictures toy with timelines and memory, but, while Groundhog Day re-treads one period of time, constantly re-shaping recent history, Memento represents the past as a vacuum. Bill Murray's character in the 1993 film has multiple memories of a single time period. Here, Leonard has none. Another movie that comes to mind when discussing Memento is the Dana Carvey comedy Clean Slate. The two films have pretty much the same premise, but, while Clean Slate does little with it, Memento draws every ounce of potential from this rich well.

Lead actor Guy Pearce gives an astounding performance as a man struggling to avoid being manipulated in a world where he can easily become anyone's pawn. It's a tight, thoroughly convincing performance. Able support is provided by Carrie-Anne Moss, who is quickly moving far beyond her label as the "Matrix Babe", and character actor Joe Pantoliano (the newest addition to the cast of "The Sopranos"). But the real star here is Nolan, and the way he has edited this masterful thriller into its final format.

Every festival has a defining film. Sometimes it wins awards; sometimes it doesn't. For Sundance 2001, Memento was that movie. Despite its diversity of genres, the festival couldn't boast anything better; now, in the bleak movie-going climate of early spring, Memento is poised to breathe life back into art houses and independent theaters that have been as stung as multiplexes by mediocre fare. For those who love films and don't mind endings that don't wrap everything into a tidy package, Memento is not to be missed, even if you have to make a long trip to reach a theater showing it.

When it comes to making a Top 10 list for 2001, one title I won't forget is Memento.

Memento (United States, 2000)

Ranked #1 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2001
Ranked #66 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2001-03-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1