Christopher Nolan's incredible film "Memento" is one thriller where you needn't fret about giving away the ending — it's used as the stunning opening to Nolan's uniquely imagined movie.
Leonard Shelby is not like you and me. He shoots someone and the bullet goes back into the chamber. Photographs held in his hands fade rather than begin to develop. For Shelby, the end is the beginning. Fortunately, the action in "Memento" goes truly backward for only a few minutes, long enough to set our minds in reverse. We know what has happened, and we spend the rest of this compelling movie trying to figure out why.
With "Memento," writer-director Nolan creates an intriguing story line about people with shifting, unclear loyalties. A long-ago rape and murder propels the plot. While there are many great moments in the film, watching it can be a challenge. Sometimes its "reverse" conceit seems like an elaborate insider's game and can be frustrating.
But hang in there, the rewards of "Memento" are more than worth a few exasperating attempts to keep your thinking reversed and going forward as the protagonist Shelby (Guy Pearce) is condemned to live day-to-day, forever. You see, he has no short-term memory. It's been gone since he was brutally hit on the head while trying to stop two men from murdering his wife. Shelby can remember everything before the attack, but nothing since. His purpose for living is simple: He wants to avenge his wife's death. But each day he must start at ground zero, grasping for hints and allegations, referencing notes he has written on Polaroids and crude tattoos he's carved into his own body. It's so difficult, that during a chase in an alleyway, Shelby pauses momentarily — confused and struggling to recall whether he's chasing someone or someone's chasing him.
On a snapshot of a woman named Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss), Shelby scrawls "She will help you out of pity." But as we soon learn — and Shelby daily forgets — Natalie is not above exploiting poor Shelby's condition on more than one occasion. And despite his cryptic notes, Shelby is ill-equipped to figure out much of anything. Are his flashbacks and disturbing dreams really clues and snippets of the attack? Or has he already dealt with the killers? Or are the vivid stories he tells about another victim of short-term memory loss (Stephen Tobolowsky) the truth or a delusion? While Shelby can remember being an insurance adjuster, he just can't explain why he's wearing hand-tailored suits and has loads of cash. With its nonlinear narrative, "Memento" recalls both "Chinatown" and "Groundhog Day." With more emphasis, of course, on the former rather than the latter.
Sporting blond hair and an impeccable American accent, him digs deeply into Shelby's desperation and confusion. Pearce delivers his best performance since "L.A. Confidential," and watching him wrestle with his character's hellish situation is more interesting than Nolan's narrative gimmick. No matter how many times we see Shelby awaken without remembering his wife is dead until he rolls over to her side of the bed, Pearce makes each mourning heartfelt and heartbreaking.
Although Nolan's conceit bogs down a bit in the middle, "Memento" remains an intriguing twist of film noir conventions — particularly if you're in the mood to watch a movie where brain function is mandatory. Nolan and Pearce make the most of their puzzling narrative, showing us dramatically that the devil is truly in the details. And that details alone never, ever, tell the whole story. "Memento" is unforgettable.
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