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With: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Stephen Tobolowsky, Harriet Harris, Jorja Fox
Written by: Christopher Nolan, based on a short story by Jonathan Nolan
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language and some drug content
Running Time: 113
Date: 09/05/2000

Memento (2001)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Careful Memories

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A hand clutches a Polaroid of a grisly murder, holding it for a long moment, before giving it an impatient shake... the way people do with Polaroids. But there's something odd about this shake. When the photo comes back into view, it's slightly faded. Another shake. The photo turns milky-gray, the color of a freshly discharged Polaroid. The image cuts and the photo leaps back into the camera. Another cut and Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) shoots a man in the head.

Writer-director Christopher Nolan plays this stunning opening scene backwards to give us a clue of what's to come. The entire story of Memento runs backwards. Shelby wakes up in a hotel room and can't remember how he got there. Neither can we because we haven't yet viewed the scene that comes before it. But we're lucky. We can remember what happened ten minutes before. Shelby can't.

He has a "condition" in which he has no short-term memory. He can't "make new memories." He can remember his wife being raped and murdered and he can remember being conked on the head, the event that apparently caused his disorder. Now he must keep Polaroids of everyone he meets and tattoos of everything he needs to remember. He's after his wife's killer, who he knows is called "John G" or "Jimmy G." Working with him are Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss)... or are they really his enemies?

It's no coincidence that Pantoliano and Moss both appeared in The Matrix (1999) as well, a movie that challenged our view of reality. In Memento, Shelby is at the mercy of his photos and notes, and his perception of reality is as skewed as ours is. We never see other characters talking behind his back or plotting against him. We only ever know what he knows.

To this end, he continually tells a story about a man named Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky). Jankis had the same memory disorder as Shelby, but his memory only lasted a few minutes. Shelby insists that his drive, his goal of finding his wife's killer, keeps him one step ahead of poor Jankis, who couldn't even concentrate on a television program and eventually caused his wife's death. The Jankis subplot comes inbetween the chunks of regular story, giving us a bit of a breather.

Nolan's skill lies in creating an atmosphere for this story. The story takes place in L.A., but it could be anywhere. It's a sinister but generic atmosphere with the usual hotels, bars, and warehouses that any city might have. He uses a Cinemascope frame and a kind of dusty beige color to emphasize the emptiness of this kind of life. And though Shelby occasionally ruminates over his condition, he never overdoes it, giving too much of the game away. We're allowed to digest that idea on our own.

Nolan's previous film, the outstanding Following (1998), similarly plays with time by running its first, second, and third acts simultaneously. We tell them apart visually by the main character who sports a black eye in the second act and a short haircut in the third. I saw Following (which has yet to be released on video) twice, and it held up both times. I suspect Memento will also invite multiple viewings. The story, and the many interpretations fans will bring to it, is strong enough to withstand them. The film will no doubt leave you with questions, but the answers are either there in the film, or in your own thoughts.

Note: If you bought the first Memento DVD, you might want to hang on to it. The special edition comes in a weird box designed to look like a case file, and the menu is a series of psychological "tests" which may frustrate many viewers. If you can navigate the puzzling menu, the disc contains director Christopher Nolan's commentary track and the Sundance Channel's "Anatomy of a Scene." The new disc does not contain Elvis Mitchell's on-stage interview that was on the first disc, and the picture and sound do not seem improved (both are excellent). But if ever a movie deserved multiple viewings on DVD, it's this one. The movie received a Blu-Ray release in February of 2011.

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