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Memento (2000)

by on 2012/03/10

“It’s all about context.”

* * * *

A man wakes in a hotel room, alone, with no memory of how he got there. He is surrounded by photos, scribbled notes, and line diagrams. When he goes to the bathroom, he looks in the mirror and finds himself tattooed with clues.

Leonard Shelby (L.A. Confidential’s Guy Pearce) is having a difficult day. Or week. Or month. Or year. Or more.

A rough inversion of Groundhog Day, Memento tells of a man who keeps forgetting, while the rest of the world continues with or without him.

The easiest, least painful course could actually be to submit, allowing his troubled past to fade away. However, his amnesia is less an issue than his personal notion of justice. He’s driven by the desire to avenge his wife, who was killed by an unknown assailant as he lay incapacitated. Now he catalogues sufficient facts to fuel the investigation through various generations of do-overs.

His anterograde condition is a function of the story, and also a jumping-off point for its telling. Director Christopher Nolan (Inception) presents that story in two halves but, whereas a film like Criss Cross treated one part as a flashback within the other, here we get them broken into even smaller pieces, in a pattern of interlocking oscillation. We learn the ending immediately, if not its rationale: the hows and whys and whether they’re justified.

Its structure gives the illusion of a larger, sprawling tale, one feeling a bit like a remixed subset of the later Mulholland Drive. Ambitious in design, its people and places are rather more modest, which is not to say they’re unenjoyable. The small cast features familiar faces in roles against their “type” or use those expectations to sow our doubt. These actors include Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano (both in The Matrix), Stephen Tobolowsky (appropriately of Groundhog Day), and Canadian stalwart Callum Keith Rennie (Last Night).

Theirs is not an ensemble you can sit back and luxuriate in, as with something like an Ocean’s flick. This effort takes a great deal of, well, effort. We’re never sure who’s “good” or “bad” up to or past “the end”. That’s a lot of quotation marks, but there’s also a lot of uncertainty, and not a lot of explaining.

For example, I was unclear for most of the running whether Lenny’s amnesia was reset intermittently, all at once, or whether it was continually fading after some subjective duration. Not until he suddenly asks, “What am I doing?” in the midst of a chase did I decide the former was the case.

There are stylistic hints to guide us. Black and white footage suggests activity happening before the midpoint; colour footage — shown in reverse order — suggests events from the end to halfway back. It must have been sheer hell for continuity.

Fortunately, it adds up to a kind of heaven for everyone else, or at least aficionados of Run Lola Run. The grim noir trappings are taken to extremes, despite the presence of colour and daytime, and the absence of hats and trench coats. Memento does justice to its heritage, while extrapolating and innovating. It’s a unique work, a transcendent union of form and function which (apparent novelty notwithstanding) might prove as difficult to mimic for its conceptual synergy as for Nolan and company’s exemplary execution.

* * * *

Rated 14A

113 minutes

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