CAPSULE: MEMENTO (2000)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Nolan

FEATURING: , , Joe Pantoliano

PLOT:  A man suffering from an inability to form short term memories hunts for his wife’s murderer, relying on notes he leaves himself and important facts he tattoos on his body.

Still from Memento (2000)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It isn’t weird.  Other than the unconventional narrative structure, Memento could even be viewed as a bit of hardcore realism.   But it is easy to see why lovers of the weird are attracted to it; the cloudy mystery that attaches to the story and its central cipher doesn’t lift until the very end, creating a disorientation that feels subjectively weird even though the story is actually firmly grounded in reality.

COMMENTS: Here, I’ll make it easy for you with this paragraph.  To appreciate just how intricately Memento is constructed, and how big of an accomplishment the movie is, try reading the sentences in a story or essay backwards, from the last to the first, and see how much sense they make and how satisfying the experience is.  This time, it’s executed flawlessly.  The movie is epistemologically pessimistic, but artistically invigorating; it’s one of those rare, unique plot hooks that come around once or twice a decade, and you can only hope the filmmakers don’t compromise and do invest the extra work required to pull it off.  It’s a simple concept but far more than a gimmick; the inversion of cause and effect works wonders.  Nothing distracts our attention from trying to unravel the puzzle.  The direction and the performances by the three principals are professionally transparent; the script is the star, as it should be in a mystery.  Leonard insists that memory is faulty, eye witness testimony is unreliable, and that the only thing he can depend on is facts—the notes he inks indelibly on his own body—but as the story works its way from the conclusion to the origin, we start to suspect that there may be nothing that we can accept at face value.  It quickly becomes apparent that it would be easy to manipulate someone with Leonard’s condition, and we have as much reason as he does to be suspicious of his two principal hangers-on: the unctuous Joe Pantoliano, who looks and acts like a small-time con-man, and beaten down (and beaten up) bartender Carrie-Anne Moss, whose seductive smile and distant eyes scream “femme fatale.”  To keep us as in the dark as Leonard is, Christopher Nolan tells his story in a series of flashbacks that continually move backwards in time; when the next scene begins, we’re thrown into the middle of the action with as little context as Leonard has.  But where did he get that nifty sports jacket, and his expensive sports car, and that scar on his face?  To figure out what’s going on, he relies on notes that he scrawls and checks wherever he can; whenever he meets someone new, he reaches into the pocket of his natty white coat and hopes to find a Polaroid with the stranger’s name and some pertinent information printed on it.  The one constant that sticks in his mind is that he’s hunting his wife’s killer; he’s tattooed the suspect’s name, along with numerous clues, onto his torso.  This is because he’s lost the ability to form short-term memories: after ten minutes or so, he forgets everything except for the facts he knew before a sap to the head sent him bonkers, and must reorient himself to the present.  When Leonard finds himself running through the rows of a trailer park parallel to another runner, he must calmly decide whether he’s doing the chasing, or whether he himself is being hunted down.  Guy Pearce’s Leonard Shelby has to overcome a handicap that would cause a lesser revenge killer throw up his hands in despair and take up an easier movie vocation, like becoming a ruthless rich bastard and trying to steal the heart of a woman away from a guileless nice guy by bolstering her misconceptions about his innocent kiss with a romantic rival.

Memento‘s uniqueness confounds the tagging system.  It’s not a typical amnesia movie—Leonard only forgets recent events, but he remembers his identity and purpose—but it shares enough similarities with amnesia movies to be listed alongside them.  Also,  it’s technically not a particularly nonlinear movie; only one important scene (shot black and white) occurs out of sequence.  Yet, anyone who’s looking for a nontraditional narrative structure would do themselves a disservice by skipping the brilliant Memento, which mucks up time but plays fair with the viewer according to its own set of rules.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…like an existential crossword puzzle, or a pungent 50’s B-thriller with a script by Jorge Luis Borges… a brilliant feat of rug-pulling, sure to delight fans of movies like ‘The Usual Suspects’ and ‘Pi.'”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

[(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Vooshvazool.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)]

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