A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, Memento is a fractured puzzle of a movie which forces the audience to piece together the fragments of its narrative. It’s a brave and bold move for writer-director Christopher Nolan to make the structure and the story inseparable, but what does the viewer gain from pasting together this story told backward? Not resolution, at least in any conventional sense. Nolan (working from a short story by his brother Jonathan) uses memory as a way to question the root of identity. While his heady experiment is fascinating on an intellectual level, there’s no warmth, no emotional pull to this tale of a deep, immense addiction to vengeance.
Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) may have lost the ability to make any new memories — a bizarre condition which makes him vulnerable to vicious exploitation — but he knows one thing: that John G raped and murdered his wife. He knows this because it’s tattooed across his chest. His skin contains more notations about the crime, and Leonard constantly jots down notes and takes Polaroids in the effort to remember what he’s doing and with whom. He could use a reliable scorecard.
Memento is a twisted film noir where characters continually morph into different archetypes. Is the unctuous Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) a con artist or a cop? Whose best interest is he looking after? Likewise, the sweetly sad Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) is a femme fatale with a heart of gold, sort of. In Leonard’s fragmentary perception, impressions must be made quickly and he rarely glimpses the whole truth, only its echoes.
The film opens with a killing, then rewinds as it moves forward, each chunk of the narrative leading to what happened just before. Concurrently, Nolan unspools an explanatory sidebar of a story (conveniently shot in black-and-white) about a memory-loss case Leonard probed as an insurance investigator. While he’s unable to fathom current affairs, Leonard is a magnificent raconteur of this tale, which holds more lessons than he’s willing to accept.
For his clever, intriguing and heartless Memento, Nolan may have benefited from recalling the Latin phrase about mortality, memento mori (remember that you must die). In his bloodlust, that’s the one thing Leonard’s truly forgotten.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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