A bravura tribute to the spirit of “Point Blank” and the importance of short-term memory, “Memento” deconstructs time and space with Einstein-caliber dexterity in the service of a delectably disturbing tale of revenge. British-born scripter-helmer Christopher Nolan avoids the sophomore slump with flying colors while deepening some of the themes so craftily explored in his debut effort, “Following.” Pic’s aggressively nonlinear structure and subtle accretion of clues suggest a second viewing may yield additional rewards, although it’s all there the first time around for attentive auds. Excellent reviews and encouraging word-of-mouth seem likely for this beautifully structured puzzle, which sustains its mystery until the punch-packing resolution of the final frames.
Opening credits show a hand holding a Polaroid photo of a bloodied dead man lying face down on concrete. The photo “un-develops” — indicating the scene is being shown in reverse. It’s a crucial image as well as an apt intro to a story told via constant episodes of backtracking and partial repetition, all meticulously layered to approximate the waking nightmare and endless conundrum of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce, with bleached blond hair and an American accent).
If ever there was an unreliable narrator, Leonard is it. He can recall everything that happened in his life until the night of the assault that left his wife dead and him with brain damage from being hit over the head. Since then, he hasn’t been able to make a memory “stick.”
Thanks to his condition, Leonard is simultaneously miserable and serene. He has to write himself notes about everything, with the most crucial reminders concerning his mission — such as “John G. raped and murdered your wife” — tattooed on his skin. Unable to remember anyone he’s met post-assault, no matter how many times they’ve interacted, Leonard takes Polaroids of everyone he meets and jots captions on them such as “She will help you out of pity” (in reference to a barmaid, played by Carrie-Anne Moss) or “Don’t believe his lies” (in reference to an alleged friend, played by Joe Pantoliano).
Leonard’s curse is that even if he does get revenge, he won’t remember it a few minutes later. His condition also puts a fresh, frequently comical, twist on elements as basic as a chase scene: Leonard is running, but he can’t recall whether he’s doing the chasing or is being chased.
Terrific idea and ingenious execution may wear thin or grow irritating for viewers unaccustomed to paying close attention. But anybody who dug the trippy triptych structure of “Pulp Fiction” should be able to keep up with the temporal shifts as narrative moves back, forward and sometimes sideways with the alacrity of a crab scuttling across the widescreen. Dody Dorn’s editing is top-notch as pic — scripted, acted and lensed with precision — smoothly toggles back and forth between sequences in B&W and in color.
Pearce is superb, Moss and Pantoliano are vital sounding boards for Leonard’s quest and Mark Boone Jr. is a hoot as the motel desk clerk who rents Leonard two rooms on the theory he won’t recall having paid for either one. Stephen Tobolowsky is poignant as another victim of short-term memory loss whose sad evolution haunts Leonard.
L.A.-set pic has an impressive noir-in-the-sunshine feel, built of cars, bars, motels and isolated hideaways. The ambient rumble of the unsettling, ominous score contributes enormously to the discomfiting mood.