Saturday, July 10, 2010

Review: Before "Inception," Chris Nolan Did Trippy with "Memento"

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 13 (of 2002) by Leroy Douresseaux

Memento (2000)
OPENING DATE: March 16, 2001
Running time: 113 minutes
MPAA – R for violence, language, and some drug content
DIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan
WRITER: Christopher Nolan (based upon a short story “Memento Mori” by Jonathan Nolan)
PRODUCERS: Jennifer Todd and Suzanne Todd
EDITOR: Dody Dorn
Academy Award nominee


Starring: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Stephen Tobolowsky, Mark Boone Junior, Jorja Fox, and Harriet Samson Harris

Leonard “Lenny” Shelby (Guy Pearce, L.A. Confidential) was an insurance investigator. While intervening in the murder of his wife Catherine (Jorja Fox), Lenny receives a blow to his head. The resulting brain damage causes Lenny to suffer from Anterograde Amnesia, a condition in which Lenny cannot create new memories. Everyday he wakes up knowing who he is, but not remembering anything that happened since the injury. From that day on, he awakes every day, his mind a virtual blank slate. He compensates by taking pictures with a Polaroid camera, tattooing information on all over his body, and annotating pictures and pages of notes as a way to remember important information from previous days.

His current associates are a cheeky friend, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano, The Matrix) and a friendly bar waitress, Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss, The Matrix). They’re either assistance or hindrance as Lenny searches for the man who killed his wife, a search he remembers began the night of his wife’s murder and his injury.

Memento is a combination mystery, thriller, crime drama, and like most of them, the answer comes at the end of the film. However, a twist that can confuse viewers, the movie begins with what is the conclusion of the story. The movie works backwards in time with each succeeding scene taking place earlier in the story than its predecessor. By the time the movie ends, the answer to the puzzle is actually the beginning of the story. If this sounds confusing, it isn’t. Memento is one of the most engaging mystery thrillers in quite a while.

Writer/director Christopher Nolan plays with time the way that Quentin Tarantino does, and he dresses his film in hardboiled film noir in the tradition of Los Angeles crime dramas. Memento’s execution is a mental exercise of the kind found in European cinema. Once you learn that the story works in reverse, you are drawn in and you can’t quit the film until its end. As you watch the story, you see a result of an action, so you must continue to watch to see what caused the action. To the bitter end, or beginning as it is, you want to know how Lenny’s suffering, how his search began, and each scene you watch only makes it more imperative that you see what happened get closer to the beginning of Lenny’s odyssey.

The performances by Pearce, Pantoliano, and Ms. Moss are excellent. Pearce makes an excellent everyman hero, and Pantoliano is the perfect sly trickster. However, Ms. Moss’s character turns are a revelation of her latent talent. Known for playing sexy heroines in sci-fi movies, to see her play a low-end bar hop is shocking.

The most brilliant work comes from Nolan, his brother Jonathan (whose original short story, upon which this movie is based, was published after the film’s release), and film editor, Dody Dorn (the special edition of Terminator 2: Judgment Day). These three creators, in particular Dody and Christopher Nolan, compose a beautiful piece of work that easily could have fallen apart upon its central conceit. They turn a gimmick on its ear. You’re impatient to learn what’s going on, and the film is so beautifully put together that you can never abandon it, lest you never learn the how it all began.

Like the tattoos that cover Lenny’s body, Memento will leave its own mark on your film viewing memory. Words in praise of Memento don’t do it just. Its impact is purely in what you see. Some film lovers see sound as a corruption of the pure visual magic of film, and Memento’s stock in trade is images and memories. The experience of seeing this film is itself a cherished memento.

9 of 10

2002 Academy Awards: 2 nominations: “Best Editing” (Dody Dorn) and “Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen” (Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan-story)

2002 Golden Globes: 1 nominations: “Best Screenplay - Motion Picture” (Christopher Nolan)


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