This creatively experimental film is an adventure in on-the-edge filmmaking. Its hero (Guy Pearce as the luckless Leonard 'Lenny' Shelby) has lost his wife to a rape-murderer and his short-term memory in his attempt to prevent it. The last thing he remembers is his wife taking her last breaths.
But what would it be like to have no short-term memory? The cutting style of "Memento" attempts to convey exactly that in the way it presents the clipped, fast paced drama in a series of recessive, revealing flashbacks in memory-time.
The method shows later scenes and then cuts back to a former moment when certain details are explained. Much of this purposely misaligned perspective is confusing or meaningless until you see the preceding episode, something like forgetting something that just happened to you. While this is not how Lenny is experiencing it, its unreliable reality builds a mental line allied to his and, in this way, provides a fascinating insight into his problem.
The condition invites great danger as the wrong people get the hang of his affliction and take advantage of it. If he can't remember what you did to him 10 minutes ago you can deceive him into thinking anything. You could be his worst enemy and pass yourself off as his best friend. You could be his biggest benefactor and he could get the wrong hints and think you're out to do him in.
These are exactly the things that threaten him as he desperately follows his clues to find and kill his wife's murderer. To help himself remember pertinent facts about people, he photographs them with a Polaroid camera and makes notes about them, knowing that he needs to refer to previous impressions that are going to fade away from his consciousness. For what he can't afford to lose or have erased, he uses his body for tattooed notes and lists.
But, as he's intent on killing a killer, he gets in extremely sociopathic company and the levels of danger to himself and others are multiplied. The great fascination of it is in having it revealed in backward playing scenes as though they are layers of memory, starting with his shooting the person trying to help him. But, was this person really trying to help him? Let's go back and try to figure that out. To do that, we get deeper and deeper into the dark, suspenseful predicament that is, itself, unforgettable.
It only hits you after it's over that the whole edge-of-your-seat adventure is told with a handful of actors. There are only about seven roles that matter with a few others who appear briefly. This could be a stage play only its ever refreshing and informing revelations don't allow you to give that a thought while it's pacing itself through its time slices.
The animation, energy and intelligence of Australian actor Guy Pearce ("L.A. Confidential") is the constant here amidst the shifting landscape of mind images. He is a study of intensity and purpose fighting on a battleground of utter confusion. The way he sorts it out, even though wrong conclusions batter him on all sides, carry him and the story forward with spectacular drive.
Carrie-Anne Moss ("The Matrix", need I say more?) is steely intensity as Natalie, bartender, criminal, co-conspirator, gangster girlfriend with spidery motives of deception and as much humanity. She is chillingly convincing.
Joe Pantigliano ("The Sopranos") is in another hemisphere of acting than he's ever been in his long line of bad-guy characters. Here, he's not such a bad guy. Or, well, as Teddy, he's a cop who may not be as good a one as he says he is but he's the best that Lenny has. And he plays it refreshingly honest and straightforward, like he's not playing a role at all. I've never liked him as an actor as much.
Leonard's wife Catherine, whom we see in silent memory images, is played by the stunning Jorja Fox effectively and sympathetically. We remember her as the no-crap, straight-talking Dr. Maggie Doyle in the TV series, "ER" as well as Secret Service Agent Gina Toscano in "The West Wing" and that beautiful-but-businesslike quality serves her well and will continue to do as she's cast for it in the future.
But the biggest accomplishment here is writer-director Christopher Nolan's, who uses an editing method that conveys the sense of time loss of his main character directly into the perception of his audience. This is an impressive cinematic framework for a real condition when it applies to a situation of criminal victimization. The astonishing thing is the preservation of comprehensibility in a presentation structure that could have lost it so easily.
Life is a slice of time and some of us get it diced. All the more fun to watch. And learn. And remember.