Imagine you can't form new memories, although you can retain all your old ones to a specific point in time. Imagine that your last memory is the rape and murder of your wife. Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce, "L.A. Confidential") is living that life, trying to find a murderer based on extensive notes, body tattoos and Polaroids from which he must reestablish his reality every 10-15 minutes in writer director Christopher Nolan's "Memento."
Laura's Review: B+
"Memento" begins with a Polaroid of a grisly murder scene undeveloping and reentering the camera, establishing the backwards motion of the plot. We begin at the end, where Leonard has found his man, John G. aka Teddy (Joe Pantoliano, "The Matrix"). His own handwriting on the photo identifying Teddy advises 'don't believe his lies; he is the one - kill him.' We're in the same boat as Leonard at this point, basing reality on Leonard's notes, but Nolan will let us see what Leonard can't know - how he got there.
The film progresses (regresses, actually) with a brief black and white segue of Leonard alone going through his reestablishing investigative process before rewinding to show the action which preceded what we have just seen, always ending where the previous segment began. This technique is easier to follow than it sounds, also pulling the audience into mystery-solving mode.
Leonard's been delivered his man by Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss, "Chocolat") who he's noted to himself has also lost someone, so will help him out of pity. The problem is, however, that Natalie seems to be tied to drug dealers and Fact #5 tattooed on his thigh is that his man is a drug dealer. Is Natalie playing him to kill the wrong man? Leonard (don't call him Lenny - his wife used to and he hated it - an odd sentiment to be reminded of by a man whose sole reason for existence is her murder's vengeance) bases trust on someone's knowledge of his Sammy Jankis story. Remember Sammy Jankis is tattooed on his hand, recalling a heartbreaking tale of a client who also suffered from anterograde memory loss whom Leonard encountered in his prior life as an insurance investigator. Natalie knows about Sammy, but then, so does Teddy.
"Memento" is an assured sophomore film from writer/director Christopher Nolan ("Following"), who fleshed out an idea proposed by his writer brother Jonathan. While this unique spin on the troubled private detective may play a little fast and loose with its facts, Nolan has a magician's flair for distracting his audience's attention while he accomplishes his trickery. Other films have told their stories backwards (the 1983 adaptation of Harold Pintner's "Betrayal" comes to mind) and many have used amnesia, but short term memory loss, as presented here, is a more frightening concept.
Nolan chose Burbank, California to project nowhere-ville and director of photography Wally Pfister ("Scotland, PA") effectively captures the grunge. The cast work well together with Pearce's withdrawn approach fitting his mental handicap, Moss' ability to flip from tough to tender keeping us off balance and Pantoliano's snake oil salesman sleaze making us buy into Leonard's world view at the onset. Mark Boone Junior ("The General's Daughter") helps provide most of the film's humor as the sympathetic motel clerk who can't resist an occasional urge to mess with Leonard's head. Stephen Tobolowsky ("Bossa Nova") and Harriet Sansom Harris ("Nurse Betty") flesh out Leonard's guilty recollections of the tragic Jankis couple.
"Memento" is an intriguing reflection on the relationship between memory and identify cloaked in a mind puzzler of a mystery.