Remember the twists in both The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense? How you had to cast your mind back to rewrite the narrative you had thought was true, armed with your new piece of information? Multiply that twist by a few dozen times, and you begin to approach the heart of the fantastic, wholly-original and compelling Memento.
Memento starts at the end: that is, the story’s final chronological scene is the film’s first. The second scene is the one that leads to the beginning of the first, and so on, with the connections smoothed over by cutting to black and white scenes of the protagonist somewhere else in the story altogether, and earlier on in his life during a period related to his current condition. Each new scene throws out a number of clues and hints that means you’ll have to reconstruct what it is you’ve already seen along different lines. It’s a kind of ongoing palimpsest of the mind.
The concept is disarmingly simple really, and in the hands of director Christopher Nolan, it engages the viewer entirely. This would be an easy technique to turn into a messy gimmick, but in Memento it’s intrinsically connected to the substance of the story itself – a cinematic onomatopoeia, perhaps – with the audience’s constant uncertainty of the truth allowing a complete empathy with what the protagonist is going through.
For former insurance investigator Leonard Shelby (Australian actor Guy Pearce) has lost his memory, or at least the ability to form short-term memories. He can remember his life up until the rape and murder of his wife (Jorja Fox), but events after that just don’t stick in his mind. He can’t remember people he’s met since then, or any facts about his wife’s death that he’s managed to uncover (he even keeps forgetting that she’s actually dead).
This is a serious hindrance towards his mission of finding her attacker in order to exact revenge, so to deal with his affliction, Leonard relies upon annotated Polaroid photographs. He has to pull them out and shuffle through them whenever he meets someone or is confronted with something he feels he should know about; and when he discovers a fact he thinks is integral to finding the murderer, he has it tattooed on his body. Through the skilful presentation of some medical information, Leonard’s situation is real enough to be believable, but still strange enough to be fascinating.
Guy Pearce received plenty of acclaim for LA Confidential but his role was restrained and fairly undemanding. In Memento, however, he’s perfectly cast, and mesmerising to watch as he transforms from upset and vulnerable victim to raging vigilante and then confused medical patient in seconds. ("Am I supposed to be chasing him?" he asks during one chase scene. "Nope, he’s chasing me," he adds when the guy turns on him.) He’s well supported by Joe Palantonio as his friend – or perhaps foe – Teddy, and Carrie-Ann Moss as Natalie, a complicated bartender who may or may not be helping him in his quest.
For audiences, the constant struggle to remember what it is you were just remembering is tiring, but the plot twists aren’t so ridiculous as to frustrate. Rather, they prompt a desire to sit through multiple viewings, which I suspect would be as enjoyable as the first. Clever, understated humour punctuate the ongoing tenseness with welcome relief at intervals, while the existential questions that losing one’s short term memory pose are prodded and explored just enough to get you thinking along tangents you probably haven’t travelled along before. This is an original, refreshing thriller that demands its viewers meet it halfway. It amply rewards them for their efforts.
Go see Memento on the big screen, then go take out The Usual Suspects on video one more time. Because once Memento hits the video shelves, it ‘ll be your new Friday night standard.