This puzzle has panache
[Photo: IFC Films]
At the beginning of the mystery film Memento, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano, left) is killed by Leonard (Guy Pearce). End of story? Hardly. Its just the first step in unraveling a plot that will leave characters and viewers doubting their perceptions.
By STEVE PERSALL
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001
The best mystery movie writers check their work in reverse to find anything that keeps the solution from being airtight.
Complex and compelling, Memento is intended to draw the audience into the action. But unlike the usual film mystery, the viewer has no advantage over the players on the screen.
The Usual Suspects, for example, eliminated the cheats. Along Came a Spider thrives on them. That's the difference between leaving a theater scratching your head or shaking it.
Christopher Nolan goes one better with his near-perfect puzzle, Memento. That's being cautious. The film may actually be perfect, but who can tell after a single viewing? Nolan constructs his entire movie backward; the first scene is the last event in the story, and the last scene shows exactly what kicks off the whole affair. Or does it?
Two weeks after seeing Memento, I'm still not certain. But thinking about the possibilities is terrific fun. Nolan doesn't just fiddle with a time line, but also with each viewer's own capacity to remember and trust those memories. We're not as smart as we think when we are watching Memento. Yet Nolan realizes we're too smart to be played cheaply. It's a marvelous balance most filmmakers never achieve.
In chronological order, Memento might be only an average revenge thriller. The story ends (and film begins) with an agitated man named Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) killing loudmouth Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) in an abandoned building. The first order of mystery is bent; a whodunit becomes a why-dunit. Then it becomes a question of exactly what was done and what sort of revenge anyone got.
Nolan boldly begins to confuse. Leonard suffers from severe short-term memory loss, the result of some accident that will come into focus, don't worry. He can remember for only a few seconds. He wouldn't even remember that last paragraph. Anyone he meets is a stranger who has probably heard him apologizing for his condition before.
Everything Leonard learned before the injury -- how to drive, for example -- is intact. Anything new must be captured for future reference in instant photographs and hastily scribbled notes. Or, for key information, tattooed on Leonard's body. We'll see clues, then later discover what prompted them. By then, they may not mean the same thing.
Truth emerges, but only if a viewer pays close attention and trusts perception, just as Leonard must. "Memory is treachery" reads one of his tattoos, and it can fool a moviegoer, too. Any questions left dangling could be answered if the movie proceeded (or is it receded?) a few more scenes. Memento makes one wish it had.
Nolan deftly trains the audience to follow his lead. Leonard's confused thoughts speak for us. Changes in color tint suggest when he's enjoying brief spasms of memory. Some scenes are repeated, overlapped with the next previous occurrence, providing a hint of linear direction. Memento is delicately complex, like a house of cards Nolan dismantles piece by piece.
The technique allows Nolan's actors to remain suitably enigmatic. How can we expect to know their characters' motivations when so much prior history is constantly being revealed? Pearce (L.A. Confidential) is an attractive cipher, rugged in the best thriller-hero tradition yet uncertain about his next and previous actions. Pantoliano was born to play this kind of (possible) sleazeball. Carrie-Anne Moss enhances the film noir atmosphere as Natalie, an ambiguous femme fatale.
There's something vaguely suspicious about everyone in Memento, and the end credits won't stop a viewer's doubting. By working backward, Nolan has pushed the genre forward to a new, deliciously perplexing level of excellence. The rest, as they say, is mystery.
- Grade: A
- Director: Christopher Nolan
- Cast: Guy Pearce, Joe Pantoliano, Carrie-Anne Moss, Stephen Tobolowsky, Harriet Sansom Harris
- Screenplay: Christopher Nolan
- Rating: R; violence, profanity, sexual situations
- Running time: 113 min.
- Now playing: Beach Theater, Main Street Cinemas in Clearwater, Channelside Cinemas in Tampa
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