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A man and his wife are severely beaten by an intruder – from his injuries the man suffers short term memory loss – he can’t make new memories. With the aid of tattoos and instamatic photos and notes he tries to track down his wife’s killer – but he can trust no one, not even himself.
OSCAR NOMINATED for Best Editing, Best Screenplay
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Before the triumph of ‘The Dark Knight’; before ‘The Prestige’ Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan set the stage for their meteoric rise with this taut, ground breaking thriller.
Leonard (Pearce) has suffered a traumatic injury: after waking one night and hearing a shuffling in the bathroom he investigates and finds his wife being strangled by a burglar – he shoots the man and receives a crack on the head from another. He falls to the floor beside his wife; as he loses consciousness he sees her die. It is his last ‘real’ memory. Afterward he is aware: he can function, brush his teeth, read a paper, but he is unable to form any new memories; and after half an hour or so his mind is wiped clean: he doesn’t know where he is or who he’s been with or what he has done. Despite this handicap he is determined to find his wife’s killer.
This is the inciting incident for ‘Memento’; but we don’t come upon it until midway, such is the structure of the film. The story begins at the end, a murder.
(The story structure has an utterly unique feel to it. Not for prose of course: novelists had been doing this sort of thing for centuries; and even for film: before Tarantino penned ‘Pulp Fiction’ Godard said a movie needs ‘a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order’. This film takes it to a new level, however, and even if it isn’t quite a new cinematic language, as some have suggested, who needs it, when the creators of Memento have spoken so eloquently?)
Leonard has just killed ‘Teddy’ (Pantoliano), or John G. -- the man he’s convinced has murdered his wife. In short sequences that last the length of Leonard’s conscious memory we trace back to his discovery of John G and the truth.
It’s not as simple as it sounds: Leonard loses all memory of current events every twenty minutes or so. Then he starts fresh, relying completely on notes and photos to tell him where he is in his investigation – who to trust, who to fear, who to kill. These sequences are in color. Another set of sequences in black and white work their way forward to the same moment – the discovery of John G. Add to the mix Leonard’s voice-over and you have a potential recipe for mud soup -- in weaker hands a disaster – as it stands a masterful drama that grips you from beginning to end.
Leonard finds himself in a motel room. He knows who he is, what his mission is; but he doesn’t know where he is or how long he’s been there. He consults his snapshots – he’s in the Discount Inn, room 203. He makes his way to the front desk where he explains his condition to the clerk. The clerk has to laugh; Leonard explains his condition every time he sees him. In walks ‘Teddy’. Lenny! he exclaims. Leonard consults his snaps: a photo of ‘Teddy’ with the inscription: “Don’t believe his lies.” Nevertheless he accompanies him to a collection of derelict buildings -- where he kills him.
Flashback to the truth: as we work backward we discover, just as Leonard does, a labyrinth of lies and murky characters: from drug dealers to cops to Teddy and the real John G. You won’t have the answer to this master puzzle until the very last.
Carrie-Anne Moss plays the girlfriend of a drug dealer with a femme fatale flair that is so sexy, so tough and so endearing you want to see everything she’s ever done, (outside of The Matrix which if you are like me you’ve already seen a bunch of times.) The original music by David Julyan is wonderful for its constraint. Likewise kudos to Production Design by Patti Podesta and the Sound Department (supervising editor Richard LeGrand Jr. among many others) for bringing this somber dream to life: all the ingredients to give Oscar nominated Dody Dorn plenty to work with in the editing suite.
But it is the writing that is extraordinary: a thriller on the surface cut with the quiet depth of a memory play. Leonard Shelby is one of the more intriguing film, characters to come along in recent years. Every so often we meet them: they reveal themselves layer by layer and just as we get to know them and trust them we learn something contradictory, something dark -- of them, of ourselves perhaps – a knowledge that may be better left buried with the bodies and the lies.
Memento is a movie that not only bears repeated viewing, it demands and rewards it.