Every so often, a movie that challenges what we consider a movie to be comes along. Such movies are an intense experience and when I leave the theater, I'm left wondering "why don't people make movies like that?". In the last few years, such films released included Being John Malkovich, Run Lola Run, Requiem for a Dream, and Time Code. Joining this list is Memento, one of the most memorable films I've seen.
Like the films listed, Memento demands a lot from the audience. Being passive means you end up missing an important part of the experience of watching a film like this. The movie is told backwards, to illustrate the plight of the protagonist, Leonard (Guy Pearce), who lacks short-term memory. This condition was caused during an attack where (according to him) his wife was killed and his brain was damaged. Since Leonard remembers all the events that occurred before he was attacked, he is on a quest to avenge his wife's death.
The problem with being on a quest and having only short-term memory is that you can easily forget that you just finished what you started to do. Even though Leonard uses a system of Polaroid photos and tattoos to keep track of what he's doing, it's up to him to record whatever he considers important. At the moment of making a snap judgement, if he fails to find a pen, or if he's out of film, or if he just choose to not record the information, then he's out of luck.
The movie starts by showing Leonard killing someone, and it is soon hinted that this person might be the killer Leonard was seeking. The movie traces Leonard's steps backwards to try to illustrate the logic Leonard uses in making his decision. In doing so, the movie also recants the story, in chronological order, of Sammy (Stephen Tobolowsky), a person who Leonard investigated for insurance fraud and who suffered from the same condition as Leonard does, and how their wives (Leonard's and Sammy's) apparently meet their demise. This happens gradually and for the most part, both stories are very clear cut (which means it's too good to be true). The most damning revelations are made during the final minutes of the film, which illustrates the nature of Leonard's condition, as well as his circular quest (the tag-line gives a major clue: "some memories are best forgotten").
While some people think of the movie as being rather ambiguous, I believe there are enough pointers to solve most issues (just view the movie backwards). For example, Leonard, our protagonist, is allegedly helped by Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), who seems like a good person. However, towards the end, she issues a tirade which makes it clear exactly what her real motives are. The final sequences are the most telling, where another person who Leonard isn't supposed to trust, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), tells him what is really happening since he has been with Leonard since the beginning of his quest. Leonard's reaction to Teddy's "truth", and a failure to record it, illustrates the motivations behind his actions.
The movie's style of telling the story backward is interesting, but I'm beginning to discover that it's really not that hard to tell a story in this manner. Take a few your favourite books (or even this review), reverse all the chapters/paragraphs, and with a bit of mental filler, you can easily follow the stories in most cases.
Director Christopher Nolan has made a memorable film in Memento, which serves as a metaphor for forgetting everything we hold dear when humans embark on a quest and want to succeed at any cost. Don't miss this film.