In Christopher Nolan's noir thriller "Memento" (IMDb listing), former insurance investigator Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce of "L.A. Confidential" fame) is on a quest for vengeance. Leonard witnessed the brutal rape and murder of his wife just moments before he was attacked from behind and dealt a debilitating head injury. The last thing Leonard remembers before passing out in a pool of his own blood are his wife's eyes, as the life in them flickers and fades away.
Three years later, Leonard has found the killer. Or has he? Does Leonard really know who the killer is, or who he is, for that matter? He remembers every detail of his life up until the moment of his injury, but the head injury he received has left him without any short-term memory. If Leonard holds a conversation for more than a few minutes, he won't remember what he said or whom he's speaking to. Leonard's disability is a monumental hindrance to his dangerous pursuit of his wife's killer. Who does he trust? Why does he trust them? Leonard can't even remember where he slept that morning, or what he did a few minutes ago. He finds himself in foot chases, not knowing whether he's the one being chased, or if he's the pursuer.
Bereft of short-term memory, Leonard has found a unique way to remind himself that he has a purpose to fulfill. He uses Post-it notes and Polaroids marked with written descriptions explaining the connection between the photo's subject and his quest. Leonard also tattoos his body with essential information license plate numbers, names, locations, and diagrams cover his skin. Tattooed in a large arc over his chest is the chilling message: "JOHN G. RAPED AND MURDERED MY WIFE. FIND HIM AND KILL HIM." These are Leonard's mantras, providing him with a single-minded purpose to destroy those who destroyed his life and his mind.
Director Christopher Nolan has created for us a viewpoint where we can share Leonard's disoriented perspective. We're forced to share in Leonard's frustration by witnessing the events of his life in reverse chronological order. Leonard's climactic encounter with "John G." violently grips us from the beginning. From there, we see every event that leads up to the confrontation, but in reverse. As each scene unfolds, Leonard is forced to look around and ask himself "Where the hell am I?", sometimes to humorous effect. But he mourns his lamentable condition as well, asking: "How am I supposed to heal, when I can't even feel time?"
Leonard's affliction and how he deals with it is a fascinating observation of how memories are not always as reliable as we'd like them to be and instinct may be just as unreliable. Unfortunately for Leonard, he lives by instinct. During his brief encounters with Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), a self-proclaimed friend and policeman, or Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), a friendly(?) barmaid, we watch Leonard go through the same tedious ritual of flipping through photos and notes, looking to remember people he's already met several times before. Leonard is at the mercy of the kindness, or opportunism of strangers, and in such encounters his instinct is a feeble safeguard.
"Memento" is confusing at times, and even Nolan acknowledges that if he walks into his own movie 20 minutes into it, he won't remember what scene comes next. "Memento" challenges our preconceptions of memory. As the story progresses, and more questions are revealed rather than answered, Leonard's life is turned upside down, dragging us with him through his blind search for truth and identity. In this challenging role, Guy Pearce's performance is compelling, as we empathize with Leonard's inability to trust his own mind. "Memento" is a perplexing masterpiece that demands, but also deserves, extra attention.
Filmfodder Grade: A+