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(2001) (Guy Pearce, Joe Pantoliano) (R)

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Suspense/Thriller: A man must deal with his inability to retain short-term memories as he tries to sort through various clues that may help him find his wife's killer.
Leonard Shelby (GUY PEARCE) is a former insurance investigator turned amateur detective who's searching for the man who raped and murdered his wife some time ago. The only problem is that he was also injured during that attack, leaving him with no short-term memory retention. Although he knows who he is and can recall everything from before the attack, he can't remember anyone he meets or any fact he uncovers for more than a few minutes.

To compensate, he records his meetings and discoveries with Polaroid snapshots, as well as notes written on paper and tattooed on his body. Nevertheless, he's never sure of any new information or people he meets, including Teddy (JOE PANTOLIANO) who claims to be a cop helping him, or Natalie (CARRIE-ANNE MOSS), a barmaid who may or may not have ulterior motives in assisting him in his search.

As he recalls investigating a case from his past involving a man, Sammy Jankis (STEPHEN TOBOLOWSKY) who similarly claimed to have no short term memory, Leonard tries to find his wife's killer despite his memory problem, all while we watch the story unfold in reverse chronological order.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
Back in my college days as a psychology major, many of us marveled over how complex the brain truly is and how goofed up it can get due to chemical imbalances or physical injury. One of the more fascinating aberrations/conditions concerned individuals who lost the ability to transfer memories from short term to long-term memory. As a result, while they could recall things from the past, including who they were, they couldn't remember things that just happened a week, day or hour ago.

While it's a serious matter that real people must deal with, as somewhat insensitive college students we'd discuss the pros and cons of such a condition. Having no short term memory would mean that you'd laugh at the same joke and enjoy the same book, album or movie time and again as if it were the first time you had experienced it. Yet, at the same time, the condition would clearly be terribly frustrating, as one wouldn't recognize friends or events from the time the condition began.

Having that malady would obviously make for a fascinating movie character, be it in a comedy or drama. For instance, the thought of such a character playing a detective who's trying to find his wife's murderer, where he can't remember clues and people he meets, certainly opens the doors for an intriguing story.

Imagine then, such a character that must write down his observations and discoveries before they're forgotten, and then drop that scenario into a story structure that follows a disorienting pattern of playing out backwards. That's not to say that it plays in reverse in that dialogue and movement are hears and seen going backwards, but that the first sequence seen in the film is really the last from a chronological standpoint, and the subsequently seen ones are those that led up to what occurred in the ones preceding them.

That's the fun, twisting premise and setup of 'Memento," writer/director Christopher Nolan's dazzling and terrific sophomore effort that will have viewers wondering about the film's ending - which is really its beginning - as the film unfolds and the story reverses upon itself.

It's not quite as confusing as it might sound, and once you get the gist of what's happening - brilliantly shown at the very beginning as a Polaroid of a pivotal event begins to fade away in reverse back to its pristine, undeveloped state - you'll be hooked into this mind-blowing, thinking person's film.

Playing with time from a storytelling perspective is a rare but certainly not novel cinematic trick, but it's usually found in the rewind or multiple character perspective-based films such as "Run, Lola, Run" and "Go!" and "Courage Under Fire" and "Rashomon" respectively. Director Quentin Tarantino popularized and creatively used the effect in both "Pulp Fiction" and "Jackie Brown" where audiences suddenly found themselves with a unique superior position setting where they knew what was going to happen - since it already did - once the rewind function was put into play.

TV's "Seinfeld" took that even one step further by having one its episodes' scenes play out in reverse chronological order where the first scene was seen last and vice-versa. Yet, while this film thus isn't the first to mess around with time from a storytelling perspective, it may just be the most effective at doing so.

Not only does the effect work at heightening the mystery of the opening murder and the audience's subsequent involvement in trying to figure out everything related to it, but the disorienting story also confuses the viewer, thus putting them closer in alignment with what the determined, but confused and frustrated protagonist is experiencing.

As such, the film's structure turns out to be far more than just some clever filmmaking gimmick by some upstart director who's yet to learn it's best to make mainstream, conventional films. By getting the viewer involved from a mental standpoint - in trying to solve the puzzle of who killed the protagonist's wife and how the film will end - as well as an emotional and sympathetic one - by putting us in the same boat as the central character, especially since we all forget things at one time or another - the film excels in creating a proactive viewer where most mainstream efforts don't even try or come close in doing the same.

While much of that lies in Nolan's intricate and carefully told story, a great deal of it stems from the terrific key performance from Guy Pearce who made a splash appearing in "L.A. Confidential" but then somewhat disappeared in "Ravenous" and 'Rules of Engagement." Playing the perfect unreliable narrator in that we never know what he's saying, recalling or experiencing is real or a product of a faulty memory, Pearce comes back to the big screen with a dramatic vengeance. He also brings a great deal of heart and humanity to the role, although much of that's layered within his character's determination and overshadowed by some of the film's more shocking revelations.

Carrie-Anne Moss ("Chocolat," "The Matrix") and Joe Pantoliano ("The Matrix," "Bound") serve as mysterious figures that he repeatedly encounters, but can't ever be sure of, and deliver perfectly ambiguous performances that only add to the film's jigsaw puzzle structure. Meanwhile, Stephen Tobolowsky ("Bossa Nova," "The Insider") is terrific as another character suffering from the same condition as the protagonist.

Much like how the protagonist views such characters, the film toys with the viewer by making them reconsider their preconceived notions about those characters that change from scene to scene. That effect only adds another layer of complexity and intrigue to this superbly intelligent effort.

To say much more about the film would probably give away too much of it as it's one of those pictures where the fun is in trying to figure out the riddle and then still being blown away by the unexpected turn of events. Unlike "The Sixth Sense" where the ending could be figured out once viewers had heard there was a big surprise coming, it's unlikely most viewers will figure out the conclusion of this one that will stick with you for quite some time after experiencing it.

Nolan (who made the little seen 1998 film, "Following") should be commended for not only making a brilliant, thinking person's film, but also for being able to pull off and maintain the film's overlapping backwards "gimmick" from start to finish (which is one thing I worried about while watching it) or finish to start, depending on how you look at it. This will no doubt be his calling card for bigger, and hopefully just as good things in mainstream Hollywood.

Putting a unique and knowing spin on the old quote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," the film manages to be funning, moving and exhilarating all at the same time, with part of the "fun" coming from making us question our own memories as we try to recall the various clues and developments that occur during it. Clearly not a picture for those unwillingly to think or play along, this is a brilliant and terrific piece of filmmaking that's unlike most anything you've probably ever seen. Worthy of repeated viewings, "Memento" rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed March 12, 2001 / Posted March 30, 2001

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