Remember when Pulp Fiction came out in 1994? The cinematic world buzzed with the radical storytelling method of cutting the plot up into segments and telling them out of order. Those were great days. We haven't seen anything so new and radical since then -- no, not even Run, Lola, Run. At least, not until now.
I don't know how I escaped seeing Memento in the theatres. But I regret missing it. (Though as Driscoll said to me when we were watching it again the next night, "I don't think I could have made it through this film at the theatre because my brain would have exploded!") Christopher Nolan has crafted a film so dramatically different that nothing less than two viewings are required to really grasp all of the details, and yet the picture is so perfect that had the story been told in a conventional manner it would have worked almost as well. What's the big twist? The film is told backwards!
Memento is a post-modern noir, told through the eyes of Leonard (the amazing Guy Pearce), a former insurance investigator who suffered an injury when his wife was murdered that prevents him from making new memories. He can remember everything up to the injury, but he's lost on anything that happens afterwards once a few minutes have passed. To help get by, he has created an elaborate method of tattooing information on himself and writing notes on Polaroids. He knows he can trust his own handwriting, at least. Leonard's life goal is to get vengeance on the man -- who may be named John G -- who raped and murdered his wife and left him in this crippled mental state.
Now, back to the backwards bit. I know I sure didn't know what to expect when I was told about this film. But here's how it works: the story is cut into small vignettes, maybe 10-15 minutes long if that much. The vignettes are then reversed in order. So, the last scene is played first. Then the next 10 minutes before that, and so on. In between each of these scenes is a black-and-white scene that goes further into the past. The black-and-white scenes are told forwards. Eventually, the forwards scenes and backwards scenes meet in "real time", and it all makes sense. Or does it? Confused?
The genius of this method is that we live the story the way Leonard would. We have no idea why he is suddenly running down a street chasing someone or wakes up in a bathroom with a bottle of Cutty Sark in his hands ("I don't feel drunk"). Leonard draws conclusions from the evidence, and we have no reason but to agree. At least, until we see the next vignette, which tells the 10 minutes before that scene, and we figure out that Leonard may or may not be wrong. It's amazing.
Memento is all Guy Pearce's film. He's sly and yet good. Honest and yet slimy. But the supporting cast helps a lot. Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity from The Matrix) plays a seemingly tender-hearted bar-tender who may have an agenda of her own. She's just the right mix of bitch and nice girl -- Driscoll was out of his mind with love for her! Joe Pantoliano, also from The Matrix, plays Leonard's friend Teddy. He's annoying but likable. Outstanding performances from both.
I don't want to give away any more of the plot. But let me say that Nolan has done a fabulous job of making lighted scenes feel dark. The atmosphere helps to build suspense. You think you know what's happened, but you won't figure it all out until the last scene. And you'll be riveted until the credits roll. And like the even more brilliant Mulholland Drive, you'll talk about it for hours and want to watch it again.