reviewed by Steve Sailer
UPI, March 15, 2001
"Memento" is a rigorously well-made, if not particularly lovable, brain twister of a movie. If you thought taking the SAT exam was great fun, you'll love watching "Memento." The rest of us might want to wait until it comes out on video or DVD before tackling it.
In the hands of a writer-director less masterful than the young Christopher Nolan, "Memento's" measly $5 million budget and its basic plot -- a man searches among lowlifes for the druggie who raped his wife -- would have made it into an instantly forgettable straight-to-cable film noir.
Fortunately, Nolan has a tremendous gimmick to work with. Everything is instantly forgettable to our brain-damaged hero Leonard, played by Guy Pearce. (Of the three cops in "L.A. Confidential," Pearce was the one who wasn't either Russell Crowe or Kevin Spacey. Here, Pearce is almost a dead ringer for Val Kilmer, and he delivers as fine a performance as that well-established star could have.)
Amnesia is one of the oldest and corniest plot devices in movies, but Nolan's version is fresh. Instead of forgetting everything that happened before the bad guy he's seeking whomped him on the head, Pearce hasn't been able to form any new memories of anything that has happened since.
This is a real condition called "anterograde amnesia." Its most famous victim was Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Computer. After crashing his plane, Wozniak walked around for five weeks constantly forgetting where he was or what he was doing. (Actually, that sounds like a fair description of my typical day since I turned 40.)
"Memento" is somewhat similar to another detective movie, 1994's "Clean Slate," in which Dana Carvey would lose all his memories every time he fell asleep. But this is more medically accurate. For example, Pearce can still learn new skills. So, he's trained himself to do what he needs to get by as a detective.
Some of the pleasures of "Memento" are like those of "Cast Away" and other movies where the rules governing the hero's predicament are carefully laid out and the viewer can therefore try to figure out a solution for him. Just as Tom Hanks' Chuck Noland has to survive on a desert island using only a pair of ice skates, a chiffon dress, and other random flotsam, writer Christopher Nolan has given his hero ingenious techniques for coping.
Pearce's character snaps Polaroids of everybody he meets. Then he writes on the photo whether he can trust that person.
Crucial facts he tattoos on his body. For example, Pearce wrote "Remember Sammy Jankis" on his hand to remind him of a man he knew before his injury who had the same problem. This helps him understand his why he has no idea how he got to where he is.
To make his plot work, however, Nolan leaves out some obvious methods. For example, Pearce is constantly discovering in his pocket Polaroids of characters played by Carrie-Anne Moss (of "The Matrix") and Joe Pantoliano (the ratty little Steve Buscemi look-alike from "Bound"). Each features contradictory instructions about whether to believe what they say about the other. If Pearce would wear a calendar watch and date each note he writes, though, he'd be better able to reconstruct the past.
Generally, film is a terrible medium for trying to convey a character's mental states. Hollywood is constantly buying up literary masterpiece novels in which everyone sits around thinking exquisite thoughts, only to discover, for the thousandth time, that moviegoers can't see inside character's brains.
Yet, young Nolan does a remarkable job of conveying what it's like to be Pearce. (Upon leaving the theatre, I was emotionally convinced I'd never be able to find my car.) He does this by tossing the chronological sequence of the story into the Cuisinart. So, viewers don't learn what's going on any faster than Pearce does.
This sounds bewildering. Fortunately, Nolan's skill keeps it all marginally comprehensible. In general, the movie rewinds in reverse chronological order, but the Nolan injects enough redundancy and explanations to give the audience a fighting chance. It's reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov's virtuoso novel "Pale Fire," in which the fractured footnotes to a murdered poet's last poem allow the reader to piece together the story of the crime.
The amnesia gimmick makes for some hilarious scenes, which are reminiscent of Chuck Jones' surrealistic cartoon "Duck Amuck." That's the one where mischievous cartoonist Bugs Bunny keeps surreptitiously redrawing the background behind a baffled Daffy Duck from the North Pole to Tahiti to Old MacDonald's Farm.
For example, Pearce finds in his closet a man bound with duct tape. Our hero asks him who did this to him. "You did," the incredulous prisoner spits out. Grateful for this useful information, Pearce slams the door shut on him again. In another scene, Pearce tries to figure out if he's chasing an armed man through a parking lot or vice-versa.
Of course, the idea that a man who can't remember anything would become a detective is ridiculous. To try to solve a crime that the police had given up on would be exhausting. For real life victims of this type of amnesia, the happiest outcome feasible is generally that they move back in with their parents, get minimum wage jobs, and enjoy simple hobbies.
Unfortunately, when the who-dun-it is unraveled at the end, Nolan violates his own rules for the game he has created, cheating viewers out of fair shot at figuring it out themselves. Many critics have praised the metaphysical conundrums this creates, but they are the same washed-up grad students who thought that the Robinson Crusoe middle act of "Cast Away" detracts from the philosophical questions posed by the dry land scenes at the beginning and end.
More damagingly, there's not much emotional payoff to "Memento." Without memory, emotions are just passing sensations.
Still, Nolan's film is reminiscent of other bravura debuts by hyper-clever artists such as the Coen Brother's 1984 movie "Blood Simple" or playwright Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." The Coens and Stoppard each went on to create many brilliant and hilarious, if sometimes emotionally unengaging, works. Yet, they only managed to reach a mass audience when they turned down the intellectual fireworks a notch, as the Coens did with "Fargo" and Stoppard with "Shakespeare in Love." At age 30, Christopher Nolan may well have launched himself on a similar career.
From Newmarket Films, "Memento" opens Friday in upscale neighborhoods in New York and Los Angeles. In two weeks, it will arrive in eight other cities. It's a fairly mild "R" for bad language and violence, but no sex.