“Memento” is a film that unfolds around the viewer. Each subsequent shot introduces another aspect of a character”s life that not only affects the following scenes, but also those that came before. The storyline makes you feel as if you are one step ahead of the film, only to realize you are two behind. Yet despite this, the film is never hard to follow, even as you question everything about it.
This is the beauty that is “Memento,” arguably the finest crime drama this side of “The Usual Suspects.” Like “Suspects,” it is gritty and almost addictive to watch, yet “Memento” does the older film one better. In “Suspects” you could not trust the protagonist because he may have been lying. Here, even the protagonist doesn”t know where he”s going or where he”s been, only that he wants revenge. Leonard Shelby (“L.A. Confidential””s Guy Pearce) has acquired antegrade amnesia ever since he witnessed his wife”s death. He remembers everything that happened in his life before the incident, but can only retain new memories for about fifteen minutes. That is, he will literally have no idea how a long conversation began, or even who he”s talking to. So the viewer can better appreciate Shelby”s plight, Director Christopher Nolan structures his film backwards, beginning with the very revenge most revenge movies save as a payoff. Yet knowing what happens takes nothing away from the tension and intrigue, and the ending (beginning) is more shocking than the climax.
Shelby”s only desire is to kill the man who murdered his wife and left him in such a convoluted state. He tattoos important facts onto his body (such as the license plate number of his car) and relies on a multitude of Polaroid pictures to guide him on his quest. He is either being aided or hindered by the shady Teddy (“The Matrix”s” Joe Pantoliano). On the back of a Polaroid bearing his face, Shelby simply scrawled “Teddy: Don”t Believe His Lies.” Carrie Ann Moss (“Chocolat,” “Matrix”) floats in and out of the picture, clearly battered and suffering, but the only real help Shelby has. Or is she?
This is the most information one can give without giving away any of the delicious twists and turns the film takes throughout. The script is simply amazing, and any plot hole is easily covered by Nolan”s confident Noir-pastiche framing. The actors embody the quiet confusion or over-blown sleaze of Noir without falling into caricature. Aussie Pearce underplays Shelby, creating a man so broken that only his machine-like need for revenge keeps him from utter destruction. Pantoliano is slippery and untrustworthy with false teeth and spiked hair, yet the viewer clings to him as Shelby does, knowing he plays an important role, but not sure of his intentions. Moss is in turn both meek and fierce, and she passes easily between the roles.
With his first film, Nolan has created a living, breathing entity. A film that could easily be an early contender for next years Oscars (assuming it does not get lost in the popcorn shuffle of summer films), “Memento” is the most intelligent, enjoyable film released in years. Keyser Soze himself would have been astonished by this flick.