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'Memento': You Won't Forget It

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 30, 2001

   


    'Memento' Guy Pearce and Carrie-Anne Moss star in "Memento." (Danny Rothenberg/Newmarket)
"Memento" is so assured and daring, you're almost petrified the picture's going to mess up, make some kind of boneheaded move. You're sitting there, rooting for this thing not to fall off its conceptual high wire.

But hallelujah, it keeps its balance; and you're exhilarated from beginning to end.

Or, perhaps I should say, from end to beginning. Christopher Nolan's film is a psychological mystery about a very confused, desperate man (Guy Pearce), who has lost his short-term memory. Piece by piece, he tries to reassemble the psychic shards of his life; re-create the exploded jigsaw puzzle that it has become. But each day, he forgets everything again.

To help remember, he writes notes to himself. He takes Polaroid shots of people and identifies them in writing. He has even resorted to tattooing information on his body. One of those tattoos is chilling: a declaration (written backward so he can read it only in the mirror) about the rape and murder of his wife.

His wife? It's hard for Leonard (that's his name, we find out) to even remember her. Is she dead? Who's the killer? Little by little, he recalls a brutal attack, possibly by his wife's assailant. A violent blow to his head has apparently caused his memory loss. Is the killer still at large? Why is Leonard holed up in a sleazy motel in the hamburger-strip backstreets of Burbank?

These and a hundred other questions ping and ricochet against the inner walls of his dysfunctional memory.

Each day begins a brand new process of inquiry for Leonard. He can't tell if this is the first time, or the hundredth, that he has asked the motel clerk downstairs to hold his calls. And he's uncertain about Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), a stranger who keeps showing up to help him. Is he on the level? If so, why has Leonard written "Don't believe his lies" on a Polaroid picture of him? And then there's Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), a bartender who may be his lover, or his friend, or just someone who needs his help.

"She has also lost someone," Leonard writes on a snapshot of Natalie. "She will help you out of pity."

What's great about this film noir is the way it deconstructs time. But the structure is not arbitrary. Each new day yields more information in backward order: We learn what happened, in tantalizing increments. And with each revelation, the big picture changes radically.

Natalie has a bloody mouth, for instance. She tells Leonard who did it. But is she telling the truth? As we go backward, the information changes; we discover who's really responsible. This is like the thinking person's "Groundhog Day."

Pearce, so memorable as a drag queen in "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," and the heroic detective in "L.A. Confidential," is perfect here. Although he's a pretty boy – an immediate count against any authentic film-noir hero – you believe in his anguish, his perplexity, his waking nightmare. ("How am I supposed to heal if I can't feel time?" he asks, without even a hint of a false note.) And, more important, you believe in the movie, which is about so much more than its attention-getting surface. This is about the selective creativity of memory; do we really remember what we remember? How much do we embellish our personal archives? What do we know for sure?

"Memento" doesn't just draw you into a dramatic mystery, it makes you aware of human mystery. And that's food for thought and entertainment.

"Memento" (R, 116 minutes) – Contains sexual situations, partial nudity, violence and bad language.

 

Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company


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