Tuesday 1 January 2019

Movie Review: Memento (2000)

A psychological thriller, Memento hides a reasonably interesting mystery within a deliciously convoluted structure.

Most of the scenes (in colour) unfold in reverse chronological order. The film starts with Leonard (Guy Pearce) killing Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) by shooting him in the head at an abandoned warehouse. Leonard was previously an insurance investigator, but is now suffering from anterograde amnesia (short-term memory loss and the inability to form new memories), caused by a blow to the head and shock incurred on the night his wife was raped and killed.

He functions by writing notes to himself, taking Polaroid shots of important people and events, and tattooing crucial messages on his body. Leonard has been on the hunt for a man known only as "John G.", believed to have been his wife's assailant. Information revealing Teddy's real identity as John G. was provided by bartender Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss). Earlier, Leonard helped Natalie deal with a shady man named Dodd (Callum Keith Rennie). But with Leonard unable to retain any facts, everything may not be as it seems.

In interspersed black and white scenes, Leonard is in a hotel room and on the phone with an anonymous caller, describing one of his insurance cases: a man named Sammy Jankis also suffered from anterograde amnesia, and his diabetic wife had great difficulty coping with her malfunctioning husband.

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan at the helm of his first big budget feature film, Memento is a gritty neo-noir thriller anchored by a murder mystery and featuring a deeply flawed hero, a dangerous brunette, an untrustworthy cop, an assortment of unsavoury characters, and a seedy motel.

Within a traditional narrative structure the film may have been above average but familiar. In an inventive masterstroke Nolan sequences the film in disorienting reverse order, cracking the foundation under the viewer's feet and recreating what it must be like to know nothing about what just happened. Memento demands full engagement and attention to detail, and rewards the investment with a finely crafted thriller full of twisty deceit and psychological trauma.

Gradually Nolan layers in a theme of nagging doubt about everything Leonard believes to be true. He remembers nothing, and so cannot trust anything. Even with all the scraps of notes, jumbled Polaroids and permanent tattoos, he is an easy man to take advantage of. The motel manager admits to charging him for two rooms, confident Leonard won't remember the confession.

But Nolan's ingenuity, while never descending to gimmick status, may also be a case of too much of a good thing. The black and white scenes do run chronologically and yet interfere with the already difficult task of following the main plot running backwards. It's almost impossible to mentally arrange all the film's events in proper order. This may be the point and allows for a few alternative explanations, but a level of exasperation undeniably creeps in.

Guy Pearce, Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss do their jobs by sticking to basic character types, this being a movie where character depth and backstories are excluded by design.

Memento stands out as a unique achievement. It threatens to outsmart itself, but is a nevertheless gripping experience.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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