The chief innovation of revenge thriller Memento is that writer-director Christopher Nolan presents his story in reverse. We begin with Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) executing the man he thinks raped and murdered his wife. Then we return, virtually
scene by scene, through his investigation of what happened.Shelby has a rare brain condition, apparently brought about at the time of the incident, which leaves him without short term memory and unable to manufacture new memories. His life is ordered by a system of annotated polaroids of faces and places so he can remember who he is, and where he’s woken up, each morning. By denying us the forward narrative momentum we’re used to, Nolan is effectively putting us in Shelby’s position. Since the action is going backwards, we don’t know what’s about to happen. Like Shelby, we have no memory of the recent past (since we’re yet to expereience it).
This ingenious thriller plays with our memory in other ways. As we head further back into Shelby’s past, snatches of dialogue and visual cues from earlier in the film take on greater significance, and we struggle to place them. Memento reminded me of The Usual Suspects in its construction, and its twist at the end. I felt dismayed by the conclusion; it seems too pat an explanation for what’s gone before, and raises more questions that it answers (it also made me appreciate Joe Pantoliano’s sneaky performance as the ambiguous Teddy).
Guy Pearce is terrific, as is Carrie-Anne Moss in a supporting role. In a reference to its film noir roots, Pearce plays an insurance salesman - like Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity. Despite its fatalism, Pearce and Nolan find warmth and humour in Shelby’s character; even in a medical condition that - on its surface - is no laughing matter.Memento looks (thanks to Wally Pfister’s cinematography) and sounds so good (David Julyan’s score and a top-rate sound department deserve credit) that I found it impossible to lose patience, even when I felt manipulated.