Ever spend the night away from home and wake up in the morning wondering where in the hell am I?
If so, you'll be able to identify with a fellow named Leonard. It happens to him every day. "I can't make new memories," explains the protagonist in the emotionally contorted Memento, an immersive and brooding thriller.
Memento defines that nagging sense of dèja vu, frozen like ice and then shattered into melting shards as memory fleets.
Yes, this is one of those films you can't talk about too much until seeing it, for several reasons: One, because it's rife with important surprises that can't be revealed. Two, because it doesn't make too much sense without soaking in it, much as Leonard must soak in the strangeness of day-to-day life under his peculiar and debilitating burden. And to top it off, because this is a crafty unfolding that moves both forward and backward in time simultaneously. More than a clever plot device, director Christopher Nolan uses this technique to challenge common perceptions of objectivity, character judgment and motivation.
For Leonard (played by actor Guy Pearce), nothing in his memory is preserved subsequent to his wife's brutal murder and his own near death beating. He keeps mementos of people and other important things - ideas, mostly - that he hopes will lead him to his wife's killer. And there's no question about the outcome of that encounter, should it ever happen: "I'm gonna kill him," Leonard says matter of factly, an archetype for vengeance.
Leonard lives in an unmanageable world, by typical standards, but he handles it coolly, "through habit and routine." Principally these are notes, tattoos and Polaroids, all three of which he has in abundance.
Told from his perspective, the story unfolds in reverse, beginning with Leonard blowing somebody's brains out. That's not giving anything away; it's the hows and whys that are crux, gradually fading in like the Polaroids that Leonard takes of important people and places he needs to remember (the sign in front of the motel he's staying in, for instance). The catch is, as the audience learns more about the chain of events leading up to a trigger being pulled, Leonard seemingly learns less, since the chronology moves in reverse. The result is a polarized thriller where every moment is laced with uncertainty, tension and hesitation, as Leonard and we, the audience, work frantically for a quick and correct assessment of any situation, from mundane to monumental.
Leonard's thoughts are often delivered to us as voice-overs, in a cool and calm way: "Where am I?" Leonard thinks, having woken up and looking around the bed he's in. "No personal decorations, no pictures - I'm in a hotel room." Or this scenario: "Okay, I'm running. Why?" He looks across a trailer park at an unsavory character who's also running. "I guess I'm chasing him..." Then out comes a gun. "Or maybe he's chasing me."
Leonard can't remember much more than five minutes ago, so he's calm and detached, ironically the way a detective is supposed to behave. Some in his world accuse him of being incapable of getting angry, since that requires the recent memory of some injustice or slight.
He asks question upon granular question, like a personified version of our judicial system: The truth shall come out under vigorous questioning. And question vigorously, he does. Leonard is optimistic about his approach and pours over details of actions, gestures, statements, and so forth. "You put together the pieces and you get the person," he muses.
And we put together the pieces and the people, too, even as Leonard is forgetting them and the results are disarming and contorted. From our perspective, people are ill-gauged, events are mis-prioritized. We see somewhat begrudgingly that to assume can, indeed, make an ass out of you and me.
The neat coincidence is that a vague collection of words - this review, for example - makes a perfectly appropriate introduction to Memento, telling you precious little about the specifics, yet insisting that you have to flesh out the rest yourself. In the movie and here, too, it's a raw deal, and there's a stream of emotions in Memento addressing that - denial, guilt, rage, as well as undercurrents of vengeance and mistaken identity.
Memento flouts convention and keeps you wondering what it's about, much as Leonard is always wondering "where am I?" "who is this?" and on and on. Sometimes it seems like a tragic love story, as when Leonard wakes up time after time, wondering where his wife went and concluding with almost wry resignation: "I can't remember to forget her."
On the other hand, maybe it's about regret, as Leonard seems continually obsessed with a shabby episode from his earlier, normal life as an insurance investigator. "Remember Sammy Jankis" he has tattooed on his hand, which he repeatedly tries to wash off, like King Lear of the gumshoes.
"We all need mirrors to remind ourselves of who we are," observes Leonard, as he methodically works to pin down his dubious relationship to the world. Memento shows us that those mirrors may be warped through and through, but they always contain shards of truth, no matter how shattered.
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