Movies I Love: Memento

"I have this condition", Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) says in Memento as he explains why he's incapable of remembering people he's seen before. Caused by a violent house robbery that claimed his wife's life and damaged his brain, his condition leaves him unable to create new memories following the point of his attack, instead requiring him to use alternate methods of keeping important information at-hand. He now jots down notes on pieces of paper, takes pictures with a Polaroid camera, and gets pertinent details tattooed on his lanky body, all ingredients in his reconstruction of one of humanity's innate tools. But it begs the question: "If he's not able to create new memories, how is he able to tell people about his condition?" Some might see this as a quandary within writer/director Christopher Nolan's twisted plot, but, in fact, they've just reached the gateway to its more introspective and interpretive corridors.

Nolan's follow-up to his freshman dazzler Following is a diabolical, faultlessly-acted puzzle, one that uses Leonard's condition for its own fiendish purposes. In fractured bursts, with each current-time segment ending where the previous began, the script essentially follows his investigation "backwards" while navigating through the fleeting limitations of his memory -- thus emphasizing his naive confusion, which soon turns into ours. These fragments pop up amid black-and-white chronological footage that occurs at a different time, accompanied either by Leonard's narration explaining the components of his condition or scattered chats on the phone with an unnamed caller. The suspense lies in how these two sides will converge around the details, how the answers might tie to the enigmatic beginning, and why we're really supposed to remember Sammy Jankis -- a man Leonard once investigated for insurance fraud.

Leonard's murder investigation breaks free from the conventions of modern neo-noir due to its novel grasp on time, with Christopher Nolan's script side-stepping traditional whodunit trappings by focusing on his condition. The writing fleshes out Leonard's anterograde amnesia with deft perception of exactly which details to emphasize -- from the first moments when one of his Polaroids is seen "un-developing" an image of a bloodied corpse, to the gap between psychology and physiology -- and which should remain periphery secrets, essentially clues hidden in plain sight. It's as mesmerizing to watch Leonard's mania as it is cleverly constructed, which challenges the audience to digest why he can't feel fear and to comprehend how he recognizes hotel rooms, meeting locations, and the vehicle he drives. We sympathize with the guy and his duct-taped version of a rewarding life ... at first.

There's a lot to chew on, though, between the opening moments in Memento when we see Leonard exacting his revenge and the end credits. He attends a pre-set meeting with a questionable barmaid named Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), who tosses out a line about the two of them being "survivors" after dropping info in his lap about the killer. We learn about Natalie and Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), the man at the other end of Leonard's gun, as we backtrack through Leonard's fury of note-following, relying on stuff he scribbles on Polaroids -- Natalie will help Leonard "out of pity", while Teddy's picture simply has "Don't Believe His Lies" written underneath -- as solid details. Here's Memento's brave challenge: we arrive in the story after all his notes have been written, and we have little grasp on their context. It persuades us to trust this man who's essentially a machine that operates on instinct, with no grasp on perspective and no way of trusting anything except the facts that he himself captures. The ways that Nolan pivots around this suspiciousness are often gasp-worthy.

Memento constructs a dense maze out of its own untrustworthy devices, steeped in captivating mystery that uses its own explanations as building blocks for an almost nightmarish mood. Christopher Nolan's slick style and structural cohesiveness make certain to keep the material cogent when it could've been too erratic or confusing, his discerning craftsmanship weaving the parallel mysteries together with both an abrasive edge and calculated sophistication. That's part of the director's somewhat divisive method, where nearly every stick of material focuses on fleshing out Leonard's mentality and perception, instead provoking the viewer to filter their own emotional perspective into Leonard's struggle with his condition. By nature, then, Memento's cold and occasionally nihilistic (look to a nasty moment involving Natalie at the film's center for proof), but the first-class design challenges the mind with its structured pessimism, telegraphing a dark punch as it perplexes those willing to relish in its menacing demeanor.

And just as Memento allows us to think we're a step ahead in the byzantine plot, it makes us realize that we're actually a consistent step behind. On the surface, Leonard's experiences envelop a warped sense of time to create a painstaking cerebral sprint, one that asks a lot of its audience by only capturing what's in front of a brain-damaged, grieving man. The mystery moves quickly, nervously, and with purpose, while it also unearths heavy retrospection about the frailty of memories and the mourning process, asking how a man who can't feel time can heal after both physical and mental trauma. We're left unable to really answer his rhetorical question, but that's fine; the darkest of film noirs share similar traits, with a comparable mix of compassion and obscurity shaped by our own observation. It's the film's willingness to explore Leonard's own answer -- to get revenge for his wife's rape and murder, even without the ability to remember it -- that fuels the relentless suspense.

Yet as the layers peel away -- or, more appropriately, as the layers are glued back on -- it reveals that little can be trusted in this eerie, gripping mystery of the human condition. In that, Leonard's memory-stripped dysfunction becomes the most important character, one well worth mining on a deeper level. Some might look at the memory structure as nothing more than a novel way of telling a familiar story, and they wouldn't be completely wrong; however, the connectivity of his condition holds deeper, darker contemplations for the willing and industrious. Tracing back the roots of Leonard's vengeance becomes the central thrust to Christopher Nolan's indie, while dissecting the nature of Leonard's motivation deems it worthy of theoretical scrutiny. You'll be able to find the end of Memento's maze, but what's to be found at the end remains one of the key fascinations worth re-examining, and the primary reason why it's an unforgettable tour de force.

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