by Greg Muskewitz
If nothing less, this is a crowning week. For in its few releases, I have found two films worthy of my highest recommendation, the exact match of four stars that I have as of yet given out for the first three months (just about four) of the year. That is three more four stars that I've given out by this time of the year as opposed to last year, but that in no way means that we are out of the clear. Only "Memento" is actually from this year ("In the Mood for Love" was available elsewhere last year, as was the festival premiere of "Panic," and the other release this week, "The Taste of Others" was playing at festivals last year and was released in France in 1999) but while I have found four films to vehemently recommend, in only these three months, I have found six zeros which is half the amount as many as I gave out to all the most detestable movies last year."Memento" plays with one of my favorite subjects to see on-screen: the mind. Last year "The Cell" gave us a dazzling, visually stunning "what if" about transcending other people's minds. But "Memento" gives something far more psychological, far more original, and even far more exciting to toy with. I will try to keep the details as sketchy as possible, but be forewarned that I may unintentionally reveal something that is a surprise the first time around.
"Even if I wanted, I can't get this out of my mind! Long-term lasting."
Like "Pulp Fiction," but really not, "Memento" challenges the viewer by telling its story out of order. The simple gist follows Leonard (Guy Pearce). His wife was raped and murdered some time ago, but during the ordeal, he walked in and was struck, resulting in a brain injury. The consequence of the injury was that Leonard no longer had a short-term memory. Everything up until that moment was perfectly secured in long term memory, but now, the second he becomes distracted from thought or conversation, he won't remember. ("My wife deserves vengeance, whether I remember it or not doesn't matter")
In order to keep track of such things, and as he is in search of the killer, Leonard tattoos himself with reminders and instructions ("Find him and kill him," "John. G raped and murdered my wife," "Consider the source; Memory is treachery"), constantly writing himself notes and keep files, and taking Polaroids of people he interacts with ("Teddy --Don't believe his lies"), his car, and places he stays at. As the film starts, we are in the progress of his hunt for "John G."
Writer/director Christopher Nolan challenges the conventional way of telling a story. Unlike "Pulp Fiction," "Memento" does not just scatter segments around, but in fact it tells the whole story in reverse, while a connected, yet semi-removed set of segments in black-and-white plays forward. Because of that structured and complicated narrative, the unique film grabs your attention quickly so as to follow along. Unless you have read about the film, it isn't clear at first that the film is being playing in reverse, but as soon as you grasp the concept, Nolan, who is already running with it, keeps you fully intrigued and mesmerized. The film gains a greater suspense and collusion by presenting it in this backward format than it would have, had it told the story linearly. One of the things I found most impressive and interesting, was the way your mind (my mind) assembled the film after seeing it. In my experience, and several people who I have spoken with, my memory repositions and unscrambles it as it would have happened in order. The psychology of "Memento" and the specialty of it, is how we individually end up placing this puzzle, so whereby I say that the actual beginning of the film is something that I never would have seen coming, I am actually referring to what we discover in the final moments.
The story is excellent, and the development, examination and exploration are absolutely fascinating! "Memento" is definitely not making things up concerning the loss of short term memory, and it shows that Nolan (and Christophers brother Jonathan, who wrote the short story it was adapted from) knows what he is dealing with. It proves that a film can be stylish without tossing in every fancy and trendy cinematic trick out there. "Memento" leaves you wanting more, a continuation, and following of this journey. Its conundrum of mental possibilities ("Memory is unreliable. It's interpretation, not record. Memories are distorted") is exactly the same sort of material that has incessantly obsessed me with "Lost Highway" and in the process, has given me endless ideas and possibilities of what it is or could be. I honestly couldn't tell you if this would have worked the other way around, but the results are absolutely seminal. I wish more filmmakers would try to challenge its viewers like Nolan is, and I appreciate that characteristic.
"Memento" is only Nolan's second feature, and his first, "Following," which came out in 1999, is not available on video --or at least not where I can find it. For those as unlucky as myself to have missed it, for the moment, there seems to be nothing to do. Everything else in the film falls second-string to the originality and creativity of Nolan and his technique and story, but that doesn't mean that it is not just as important. Guy Pearce, who seems to carefully chose those roles he takes on (and possibly explains why we see so little of him) "creates" Leonard perfectly. He gives a spectacular performance, and although he is not a small-known celebrity, his lack of presence in most peoples' long term memories will serve them better for his chameleon-like approach to the role. Carrie-Anne Moss, Stephen Tobolowsky and Joe Pantoliano (though somewhat annoying) also fit their unusual and striking composed characters. It would be premature --especially without having seen "Following"-- to posit that Nolan is one of the most innovative and best new filmmakers out there, but I suspect that my intuition is not very far off on this one. Keep your eyes on Nolan!Final Verdict: A.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=4848&reviewer=172
originally posted: 03/31/01 05:25:54