Memento

| April 4, 2001

While I have some problems with Memento, make no mistake about it. For those who are serious fans of the film medium, DON’T MISS THIS ONE!!! It is a stunning original and I can think of nothing comparable. My only reservations concern whether or not a film should make a viewer work this hard to try to understand just exactly what is going on. Even after seeing it twice, I still have lot of questions, but I find myself still thinking and wondering about it. It is stimulating, gripping and haunting.
One of the first images on the screen is a fully developed Polaroid snapshot that fades back to white as we watch it. Shortly thereafter, we see a bullet return to the gun from which it was shot. The point being that we are seeing the result of the events covered in the film in reverse order, and the film shows us the end of the story first. The other major wrinkle here is that the protagonist, a former insurance claims investigator named Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), has a real medical disorder or “condition,” called anterograde memory loss or short-term memory deficit. This condition makes it impossible to make new memories or to retain any new information for more than a few minutes. As an amusing/alarming example of what he has to deal with, at one point during a foot chase sequence, Leonard suddenly realizes that the man who he thought he was chasing is actually chasing him! His condition is the result of a recent injury incurred during an incident in which his wife was brutally raped and murdered. Leonard can still remember everything up until he sustained this injury.
The plot deals with Leonard’s attempt to locate the murderer and avenge her death. In order to keep up with accumulated clues and other collected information, he resorts to taking Polaroid pictures of possessions and locations, such as his car and the motel where he has rented a room. Also, he keeps numerous notes and charts and even tattoos his body with data that he knows he must retain.
Star Guy Pearce is on screen for almost all of the 105 minute running time of Memento. He is one of my favorite actors and eminently watchable. Born in England in 1967, he immigrated to Australia with his parents when three years old. His New Zealand pilot father died in a plane crash when Guy was eight leaving his English schoolteacher mother to take care of him and his older sister. As an eleven year old, he appeared in local amateur musical productions and won a junior bodybuilding competition in his mid-teens. In 1958, immediately after he finished high school, he started his four-year role as a student (then teacher) on the popular Aussie soap, Neighbors, and that turned him into a teen idol. I first saw him as Adam/Felicia in The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert (1994). I knew nothing about him before I saw Priscilla, and assumed that the outrageous drag queen that he was playing was not much of a stretch. Not even close – which makes his work in Priscilla even more amazing. Fortunately, director Curtis Hanson cast him as a L.A. policeman in L.A. Confidential (1997) without seeing Priscilla, since I’m not sure he would have believed that Mr. Pearce could have enough range to do such different characters! I consider L.A. Confidential to be one of the best ten films of the nineties and feel that Mr. Pearce was, at least, the equal of the rest of the outstanding cast, which includes three Oscar winners, namely Kim Basinger, Kevin Spacey, and Russell Crowe. Don’t be surprised if he gets his first best acting nomination next year for Memento. Married for several years now to his childhood sweetheart, Kate, he prefers to keep his private life private. His next is the already completed The Count Of Monte Cristo (2001) for director Kevin Reynolds. Continuing to show his range in this classic costume adventure drama, he plays the title character’s traitorous friend. Currently, he is shooting the eagerly awaited remake of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, which is being directed by the writer’s great-grandson, Simon Wells.
(Ed. Note: You can read more about Mr. Pearce’s background and upcoming films here.)
This is actually the second film for 30-year-old British born, Los Angeles resident, writer/director Christopher Nolan. His first film, Following (1998), is a 70 minute, tiny budgeted black & white effort shot and shown in 16 mm. Not surprisingly, it received extremely limited distribution. That will not be the case for Memento, or for his next, Insomnia, (2002) which has a large budget and major cast including Oscar winners Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank. The Memento script is based on a story written by Christopher’s brother, Jonathan Nolan, who did extensive research on memory disorders.
All technical credits are exactly right for the material at hand, and would not have been improved if the $5 million budget had been increased. The supporting cast is perfect. As Leonard’s wife, Jorja Fox (current television hit series, C.S.I.) is effective and attractive. Canadian born Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix I, II, & III, Chocolat) continues to impress and is an actress I’ve enjoyed since I first noticed her in the 1994 guilty-pleasure television series, Models Inc. Joe Pantoliano registers strongly as Teddy who may or may not be Leonard’s friend, the murderer and/or a law enforcement officer; he was recently added to the cast of the highly respected HBO television series, The Sopranos, and is likely to get a lot more exciting opportunities as people see his work here.
During it’s first few weeks in limited release, business has been quite good. The release plan calls for a gradual rollout, but don’t look for it to make it into small towns or to ever play 3000 theatres. I expect playoff to be similar to that of The Usual Suspects (1995). Do expect excellent word-of-mouth and long runs for specialized theatres in sophisticated areas. One of its most famous fans is recent Oscar winning director, Steven Soderbergh. Although extremely well received on last year’s film festival circuit, no distributor made an acceptable offer. Thank goodness the producers didn’t just sell it off to pay television, which I suspect was a distinct possibility.
I recently read that the film might be re-edited to tell the story chronologically on a DVD version after the theatrical runs are completed. That’s something that I would have to have! Appropriately enough, Memento is the Latin word for “memory.” I consider this a memorable film and find myself liking it even better as I think more about it. On my personal rating scale, I give it a 9 out of a possible 10.

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