movie review by
David Ng


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If maestros of cool David Fincher and Quentin Tarantino were to collaborate on a film, the result might be something like Memento, a smart, high-concept thriller filled with plot twists, time warps, and topped off with a surprise finale that while clever, feels somewhat obligatory in our post-Usual Suspects world. Writer/director Christopher Nolan is by no means a copycat, but like his predecessors, he is a bit of a show-off. He tells his story in reverse chronology, beginning with the end and ending with the beginning, with each scene followed by one that logically precedes it. Dizzying and wicked, Memento is more than just a stunt pulled off with incredible style: itís also a character study, or more precisely, a psychological portrait. Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is a thirty-ish insurance agent desperately searching for the man who killed his wife. To complicate matters, Leonard suffers from short-term memory loss which makes it impossible for him to remember anything for more than a few minutes. As the movie progresses or rather regresses, the real mystery becomes who Leonard really is as his past is gradually revealed to us. Ultimately, Memento contains nothing we can accept at face value -- everyone turns out to be someone else -- and this gives Nolan latitude to play with our minds in ways that are intriguing and dangerously manipulative.

We arenít bothered, for instance, by the fact that we are drawn to Leonard even though we know almost nothing about him. The fact is we have no choice in the matter. We experience the movie as he experiences life -- as a labyrinth of unfamiliar faces and places -- and this creates a weird bond between us. When we meet Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss), an L.A. bartender with a cut on her upper lip, she seems to know Leonard but of course Leonard has no idea who she is. The only way he can identify her is by using his library of Polaroids, snap-shots heís taken of people heís met. On each he has scribbled little mementos such as "Donít Trust His Lies" and "She Can Help You"; they act as a kind of external memory store. Natalie has information on the identity of the alleged killer, a man named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) whom Leonard guns down in the first scene. The question on our minds therefore becomes who Natalie is and why she wants to help Leonard. As we go back through time, her identity and motivations take shape, and we ultimately see her place in the overall scheme. Itís the same unsettling effect as backing away from a painting which weíve been staring at too closely: it is a disorienting and revelatory experience.

More so than with any other recent film, Mementoís structure is integral to the kind of suspense it wants to generate. Told in chronology, it would have been a whodunit thriller. Told in reverse, it becomes a who is he/she thriller. The identity of each character is an unknown quantity which ultimately gets solved not by detective work, but by the simple reversal of events. Time is the movieís true aggressor and Leonard becomes an increasingly passive character as the movieís backwards chronology constantly throws new light on his identity. This, however, has the unintended and regrettable side effect of distancing us from Leonard. As various identities sort themselves out on screen and we begin to piece together faces and locations, Leonard remains a prisoner of his quasi-amnesiac state. Psychologically immutable, he is as aware of his surroundings in the beginning as he is in the end. By the filmís conclusion (i.e., the storyís beginning) weíve diverged so completely from his state of mind that we can no longer identify with him.

Since Memento is ultimately a cold and cynical movie, itís easy to forget about its sly humor. Nolan drops us into the story at seemingly arbitrary points, turning potentially scary situations into something vaguely absurdist. At one point, Leonard finds himself running for no apparent reason. "OK, Iím running," he says to himself. "No, wait. Iím being chased. By that guy. With a gun." The humor has shades of cruelty because it always comes at Leonardís expense. Heís like the dumb kid who doesnít know heís being made fun of. His most persistent tormentor is Teddy whose ability to materialize out of nowhere is one of the movieís more grating themes. Pantoliano has the difficult role of making us question our assumption that he is indeed the killer. Neither friend nor enemy, he insinuates himself into Leonardís life for reasons revealed in the movieís overly confessional finale. But even these explanations could prove to be false -- weíll never know -- and this is perhaps the movieís ultimate joke: Leonardís identity and the identities of Teddy and Natalie are as endlessly shifting as the fragmented timeline they inhabit.

A movie like Memento, which has so much going on, wouldnít seem to have time for many quiet moments, but there are a few thanks mostly to Guy Pearceís understated but enormously effective screen presence. Without saying a word, he evokes the essence of a fallen yuppy . Skinny and bleach blonde, Leonard has covered his body with tattoos -- more mementos but these are the important ones, the ones that donít change. Looking at himself in the mirror, bare chested, he is an object of self-mutilation. Pearce, who is Australian, affects a flawless American accent (as he did in L.A. Confidential) and he inhabits Nolanís San Fernando Valley like a resident alien, out of place but destined never to leave. With its motels and seedy bars, its palm-tree-lined streets and abandoned water plants, the Valley has never looked so tragic. With the invaluable help of David Julyanís throbbing, ominous musical score, Nolan creates a dreamscape that, depending on who you are, could be a heaven or a hell.

[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]