The Good: Incredible acting, Excellent concept, Interesting characters, A lot of good bonuses on DVD
The Bad: It's going to take real study to figure out the whole truth
The Basics: A man with no short-term memory works a hunt for the man who killed his wife backwards in a stylish, clever movie by Christopher Nolan.
Guy Pearce is an actor whose day came and went rather quickly, it seems. He was robbed of his rightful top billing in L.A. Confidential (reviewed here!) because he lacked celebrity and he was given the lead in such uninspired films as The Time Machine. And in between, he created the magnum opus of his career thus far with Memento, a film where he looks more like Brad Pitt (a la Fight Club) than Guy Pearce. The truth is Memento has been on my list for years and having finally seen is, I'm glad I saw it. Memento makes me wish that underrated movies would be re-released in theaters every couple of years until they "take." Memento is a high-concept movie that I'm unsure the movie-going public appreciated enough in 2000, when it was released.
Leonard suffers from a rather serious brain disorder where cannot form any new memories, so his short-term memory never gets archived into his long-term memory. Thus, roughly every five minutes, Leonard's life restarts. This is problematic as he is searching for the man who killed his wife an indeterminate amount of time ago. Starting with the moment Leonard believes he has found his wife's killer, Memento works backward to through a sequence of events that put him at the moment of vindication.
Leonard functions by taking Polaroid photographs of people he encounters and making notes about them. This allows him to do such things as figure out which car is his, define allegiances and know where he is bunking. Leonard tattoos the most important notes onto his body so they become permanent. The thing is, other people may - or may not - be using Leonard's system of keeping track of his life against him.
Memento is most respectfully reviewed with a minimalist review. My review is successful only if it gets you to watch this film and the truth is, it's exceptionally hard to do that at length without delving into the complexities that make Memento worth seeing. It's unfortunate, because ideally, the viewer should go into a first viewing of Memento with minimal information. The movie gives the viewer all they need in order to figure out what is going on, what the truth is, and how the movie works. So, for example, one of the characters explicitly postulates that Leonard's disorder would be like living his life backwards, not knowing if he was coming or going, which basically informs any viewer who hasn't picked up the technique of the movie (i.e. that it is going backwards) by that point what is going on.
This is an ambitious project for director Christopher Nolan. This was his first major studio, successful, feature-length project and it's amazing that his career started on such a high note (though I suppose I ought not to be surprised as I enjoyed his more recent The Prestige, reviewed here!). Nolan takes a complicated screenplay (which he wrote based on the short story "Memento Mori") and executes it with flair, style and distinction. Nolan does more than use a plot technique to make the movie distinctive or weird, but he creates a visual style that immediately transforms the viewer's reality. The opening credit sequence drags the viewer backward and it's a very intriguing and intoxicating method for getting the viewer into the film's mindset.
The characters in Memento are instantly engrossing, starting with Leonard. Leonard's condition could be all that is used to define his character, but wisely Nolan does not allow his disorder to be the end all and be all of his personality. Leonard has love, loss and no small amount of obsession, making his character interesting and watchable. His disorder makes his lack of immediate passion for vengeance realistic; scenes exploring the continual sense of loss Leonard experiences over the death of his wife, give him heart that make him memorable and essentially human.
Leonard is surrounded by intriguing characters, who include Burt, Teddy and Natalie. Burt is simply the hotel lobby clerk who pops up through the movie to amuse the viewer and jerk Leonard around. Far more important are Burt and Natalie. Natalie is a woman who appears to be aiding Leonard in his quest to find the man who killed his wife. She is sympathetic, sad and she captivates the attention of both Leonard and the viewer.
Teddy is the character who seems most ambiguous and troubling to both Leonard and the viewer. He's slick and it's easy to view him as a con man and the truth is part of that comes from the way the movie is structured and some from the way Joe Pantoliano plays Teddy. Pantoliano treats the viewer to his wide-mouthed smile and jocular speeches from the beginning, making us feel like he's trying to pull one over on both Leonard and the viewer. Pantoliano is great at that sort of role and in Memento, he creates the masterpiece performance of sleazy sidekick.
Carrie-Anne Moss plays Natalie and her performance is the one that shakes the viewer. Moss transforms Natalie throughout the movie in such a way that jerks at the viewer, not simply for the character manipulations but by the genius portrayal Moss gives. To explain more and go into depth about how specifically Moss is genius in her performance would give too much away about the twists in the movie, so please take it on my word that her acting in the movie is amazing and worth the price of admission alone.
Guy Pearce is exceptional as Leonard. Throughout the film, Leonard tells the story of Sammy Jankis, someone who suffered from a similar condition as he does. Leonard suggests that Sammy was faking his condition and the "tells" he indicates clued him into the possible acting on Sammy's part are never present in Leonard's character. Pearce fully embraces the character and completely sells the audience on who he is and why he is the way he is.
In the end, Memento is an exceptional movie that I'm going to have to go back and rewatch several times. To put it all together, to make a coherent argument about who is truly telling the truth is a real task. There are some concepts that become undeniable and wrenching (again, I'm not going to ruin the surprises for you), but there are giant leaps in Memento that seem up for debate. The DVD has an exceptional number of bonus features to help the interested viewer get into the story even more and it's almost worth making a guarantee that if you pick the disc up and watch Memento, you'll want to watch and listen to those bonus features.
This is not a movie the viewer can give half (or less) attention to. It is a movie that demands attention, but it rewards the viewer with its attention to detail and the integrity and interest of the story created. It is an incredible debut and well worth the buy.
For other works with Stephen Tobolowsky, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax
The Time Traveler’s Wife
Heroes - Season 2
For other movie reviews, be sure to visit my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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