"John G raped and murdered my wife."
Normally, it's not a piece of information one would need to tattoo on his chest to remember unless, of course, if during the murder/robbery attempt he was injured and lost all short-term memory.
Such is the fate of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a former insurance claims investigator whose life was forever altered by the crime. Now the man is "living only for revenge." He recollects everything that happened up until that fateful point, but his head injury has rendered him unable to make new memories. To help counter this while tracking his wife's killer through the seedy motels, bars and warehouses of Los Angeles, Leonard keeps a Polaroid camera and pen at all times so he can document his life ("This is my car," he writes as a reminder). Otherwise, within minutes he forgets it. But for the really important facts, he has resorted to tattooing his body resulting in a physique that features more permanently etched phrases than Robert De Niro sported in "Cape Fear."
Already the hero of writer-director Christopher Nolan's second effort (he also helmed the little-seen "Following") is operating under a set of rules unique to detective cinema. Yet Nolan also throws an additional twist to the proceedings: He films the movie backward sort of. It's not that the action is run in reverse (with the exception of a brilliant opening scene that shows a picture of a dead body fading from an un-drying Polaroid), rather the scenes are arranged in reverse chronological order. Each fragment takes the viewer up through the first moment of the previous scene. There are also some flashbacks that are shown in linear sequence, and they move against the main story like two cars passing each other on opposite sides of the highway.
A clever "Seinfeld" episode tried this gambit a few years back. It works equally well in "Memento," mainly because it puts the audience in the same predicament as the hero in that past information is a total mystery. One learns more the farther back the plot rewinds. And, eventually, it becomes clear that this is not a simple whodunit.
Pearce (star of "L.A. Confidential" and the underrated "Ravenous") plays a riff on the classic film noir hero flawed, motivated, tough and sympathetic and does so with great charisma. With his spiky blonde hair and unflappable demeanor, the Australian-raised actor never lets Leonard slip out of character. "The world doesn't disappear when you close your eyes, does it?" he rhetorically asks one of the people who don't understand how he can function under such a handicap.
Nolan has great fun with the moments that are played for laughs, which include a hostage that Leonard finds he has abducted and stored in a hotel room, but, of course, can't remember why. Here, he gets to verbally spar with Teddy (the ever-smarmy Joe Pantoliano), a character who seems to know much about Leonard but can hardly be called a friend. In the movie's most amusing gag, Leonard is shown in mid-action during a chase scene only he can't recall if he's chasing the villain or being chased.
Some of the more lingering images come from his relationship to a drug dealer's girlfriend (the always-impressive Carrie-Anne Moss) whose motivations are perpetually shifting. He inscribes on her photo: "She has also lost someone. She will help you out of pity." And perhaps the most disturbing ingredient involves Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), who is shown only in flashback during Leonard's narration. The man apparently also suffered from similar memory damage. Leonard was hired by the insurance company to prove that Sammy was faking his condition, and the outcome of the findings holds a key (or does it?) to Leonard's own existence.
On paper, "Memento" has the potential to be anti-climactic. It starts with a murder and spells out to the audience who committed it and why. Yet the movie is relentlessly compelling because it's so cautious at dispensing its key facts that the viewer is almost obliged to help solve these unfolding mysteries alongside the hero.
Despite the conclusion bringing a whole new wrinkle to Leonard (as the saying goes, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"), one can't help but be disappointed with how "Memento" resolves. It's a downbeat ending to an already downbeat thriller. And in many ways it cheats the audience out of closure to the story. It may be unfair to expect an exclamation point at the end of a picture that is only concerned with the present tense, but it does make one unsure of what has just transpired, necessitating the need to see the film again. Perhaps that's the point.
Regardless, "Memento" is a movie that definitely earns the distinction of being termed unforgettable.
Jon Niccum is a film critic for the Lawrence Journal-World of Kansas, the parent company of the Payson Roundup.