Without its unique approach at storytelling, Memento might very well have been a typical murder mystery: victim is killed, hero tracks down murderer, murderer is brought to justice. But what sets Memento apart from its peers, and indeed, from most other movies in general, is that its story is told in reverse. Instead of beginning with the crime that sets off the manhunt, we start with the resolution: our hero shooting the villain in the head. From there, the movie constantly jumps back in time in measured segments, telling us piece by piece what led up to the central character's violent actions.
That central character is Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a tragic figure who has suffered two incredible losses: his wife was brutally raped and murdered, and a severe head trauma has made it impossible for him to form new memories. Memento puts a twist on the traditional soap opera version of amnesia that affects long term memory, where those afflicted with it are unable to remember their identities. Instead, Leonard suffers from a rare form of the affliction that disrupts his ability to retain memories of new events. He can only remember things that happen to him for a brief span of time before they are lost. If you were to introduce yourself to Leonard, he might very well forget who you are fifteen minutes into your conversation.
Murder investigations can be difficult enough, but Leonard's condition makes his task that much harder. To aid his efforts, Leonard cleverly devises a meticulous system whereby he can gather and remember clues externally: he writes countless notes to himself, trusting his own handwriting more than any one person, and he goes so far as to tattoo critical information on his body. The only thing that remains constant is his long term memory up to his wife's death: he knows who he is, he knows she was killed, and he knows he is on a hunt to find her murderer. But every hour of his search is like going back to square one, as Leonard forgets everything he has recently learned and must continuously re-learn the vital clues he has painstakingly pieced together.
The overcoming of his hindered memory alone would have made Memento interesting and unique. But its use of reverse chronology to tell the story adds yet another layer of fascination and intrigue. And because audiences are fed bits of information they must piece together with a larger puzzle, the immediate revelation of the story's "end" is not nearly as anticlimactic as you might first think. Indeed, the way the various elements fit together and demonstrate cause-and-effect captures your attention and forces you to think in ways most movies don't. The result is a crime thriller that is also an exercise in storytelling and perspective, making Memento far surpass most of the other films of the genre.
Guy Pearce is compelling enough as Leonard, but the nature of his character doesn't offer him many opportunities to be more interesting than his condition. Memento therefore relies on its two supporting cast members, Matrix-stars Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss, to inject conflict into the plot. Pantoliano plays Teddy, the killer that Leonard kills at the start of the film. And as we step back in time, we not only learn the events that lead Leonard to believe Teddy was the killer, but we also are gnawed by an uneasy sense that there is a murderous agenda behind Teddy's friendly smile. Moss plays Natalie, a seemingly vulnerable woman who also befriends Leonard and acts willing to help him find the killer. She's the wildcard that Memento throws in to keep things mysterious for an audience that already knows the fates of Teddy and Leonard. But Natalie adds an uncertain element to the mix because we aren't certain of her intentions until later. How is she tied to Teddy? Just how deep is her relationship with Leonard? These unknowns add suspense to a film that we, for all intents and purposes, know the ending of.
If there's any failing of Memento, it's that it juggles too many experimental elements all at once. And while most of it comes together quite fluidly, some of those elements become cumbersome. As the movie progresses and the story picks up pace, things seem to get more complicated and unwieldy. The jumps backward in time become sporadic, and come in more randomized intervals. Perhaps that is an effect of the reverse storytelling--the plot seems to fragment more instead of coming together as we approach the closing credits. But ultimately, even the movie's backwards presentation seems gimmicky. (What? Did someone mention the Seinfeld episode "The Betrayal"?)
Rating: 8 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)