Main cast: Guy Pearce (Leonard Shelby), Carrie-Anne Moss (Natalie), Joe Pantoliano (Teddy), Mark Boone Junior (Burt), Stephen Tobolowsky (Sammy Jankis), Jorja Fox (Catherine Shelby), Harriet Sansom Harris (Mrs Jankis), and Callum Keith Rennie (Dodd)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Memento is told in reverse chronological order. That’s right, it starts from the end, and goes all the way back to the beginning. If you say that this is a manipulative gimmick, you’re right. But I’m suckered in. Why? The brilliantly executed gimmick, and oh, Guy Pearce’s marvelous portrayal of a flawed man bent on vengeance.
Leonard Shelby can’t make new memories. His wife was raped and murdered and when he tried to intervene, he got a head injury that caused his brain to be unable to remember anything for more than an hour at most. Hence, while he remembers anything in his life until his wife’s death, he can’t remember anything after that. Every day is a new day, literally, with new people. To keep up, he tattoos important information on his body, keeps a detailed file on things, and uses Polaroids to keep track of his car, people, et cetera. By important information, I mean the clues to his wife’s killer. He has so far a license plate, a name (John or James G), and possible allies – the mysterious Natalie and the deceptively happy-going cop Teddy.
When Memento starts, Leonard has already blasted Teddy’s brains all over the floor. Teddy is John/James G. Or is he? The movie then goes backwards in a series of flashbacks that are arranged in reverse chronology, all the way until the “climax” – how Leonard discovers the clues in the first place. Incidentally, this “climax” is a revelation that functions as a climax in the conventional sense. It leaves me breathless with surprise, because it came out of nowhere (at first), but it makes perfect sense.
Guy Pearce plays Leonard Shelby like a virtuoso. Leonard is a man whose sense of vengeance is driven by dark human nature as much as a quest for vengeance. And his friends aren’t the selfless Samaritans they seem to be. Ultimately, it all boils down to one’s willingness to either accept reality or live in comfortable denial. But there’s something heartbreaking about a man whose last memory is his wife dying before him, and sometimes he forgets that she didn’t survive and wakes up calling for her. This can drive a person insane, and in a way, Leonard is insane, driven by his demons as well as vengeance to keep his life moving. Combustion by hatred and fury, if you will.
Carrie-Anne Moss doesn’t have much to do as a mysterious moll, although she acquits herself more than adequately in her pivotal scenes, where she just reeks of weariness. Is she or is she not a friend of Leonard’s? Likewise, Joe Pantoliano doesn’t have much to do as he plays a cute, smarmy, corrupt cop, but Memento is Guy Pearce’s movie. He has everything down pat – Leonard’s nervous tics, his fervent need to tell everyone of the story of Sammy Jankis (a man who had the same condition as Leonard and whose tragic ending Leonard is determined to avoid), his sympathetic need for vengeance to fill the void in his soul and memories.
There is a big possibility that I am making a bigger fuss out of this than what Christopher Nolan plans for in the first place. There is a skeptical part of me that wonders if Mr Nolan isn’t laughing at me, because he makes Memento as cryptic as possible not because he can, but out of either lazy plotting or sheer pretentiousness. But this time around, I’m happy to be suckered in. Guy Pearce’s magnificent acting tugs at all my heartstrings even as he plays one of the most fascinatingly flawed, human, and complex characters I’ve come across.
Memento is perversely beautiful, exasperating, and manipulative all at once. But like its name, this movie is a worthy keepsake. I love this movie, and… where’s my notepad and pen again? Dang, I can’t rest easy until I get the whole picture straight.