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      Memento Review

      Memento poster


      Mark Caro, Chicago Tribune

      Memento is a thriller for people who are sick of thrillers, a puzzle movie in which the puzzle is actually worth the time and effort to solve.

      Suspense movies of late have been anything but suspenseful. The lead character faces some mystery, travels down right and wrong paths, gets double-crossed in an out-of-nowhere "surprise" and winds up in a chase in which the villain ultimately buys the farm.

      Young British writer-director Christopher Nolan (Following) turns the formula on its head with Memento. In its first scene, the supposed hero guns down his prey, and then the movie works backward to show you how he got to that point.

      Turns out that Leonard (Guy Pearce), our man on a mission, is suffering from a "condition" that, as he explains to the same people over and over, prevents him from creating any new memories. He can remember everything up to the point his wife was killed, but since then his short-term memory has been non-functional, so each time he meets someone, it's as if the person is a stranger. Fifteen minutes is about his limit for maintaining a clear line of thought.

      The reverse-order flashbacks are Nolan's way of letting us share at least some of Leonard's point of view. When Leonard meets a woman named Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) in a diner, he has no idea who she is, and neither do we. Only as we move back in time do we realize how essential her role is, even as we try to get a handle on her intentions.

      It's remarkable that Nolan is able to build such suspense based on our finding out what already has happened. We know where all of this action is leading -- to Leonard pumping lead through the head of an enigmatic guy named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano). What makes us uneasy is our uncertainty over the circumstances and manipulations that led to that point. It's as if a shot has been fired in the dark and not until the room is illuminated will we know who the real victim is.

      Obsessed with finding his wife's killer, Leonard tries to keep the clues straight through an elaborate system of taking Polaroid pictures of key people and locations -- like the L.A. motel where he's staying -- and writing himself notes and tattooing important pieces of information on his body. This way when someone arrives supposedly to help him, he can check the person's identity on the photo and read his own handwritten caption, "Don't believe his lies."

      Nevertheless, Leonard is a renegade gumshoe (we eventually learn that he is an insurance investigator) in an almost constant state of confusion. All of a sudden he's running from someone firing a gun, or he's finding someone tied up in his closet, or he's waking up next to someone and having no idea why. In a sense, Leonard is living a prolonged version of those paranoid moments almost everyone experiences at some point -- where you feel like everyone in the room knows what's going on but you. But Leonard has become so accustomed to this dynamic that he's developed an unflappable facade; he thinks he's faking out everyone even as he deludes himself.

      As he did as Lieutenant Exley in L.A. Confidential, the Australian Pearce immerses himself so deeply in his role that he erases viewer memories of having seen him on screen previously. (He also played the most femme of the cross-dressers in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.)

      With his finely carved cheekbones and sleek build, Pearce could have made Leonard into a straight-ahead action hero, but the actor counterbalances any sense of bravura with an undercurrent of puppy-dog vulnerability and shifty-eyed edginess. Leonard is driven to put together all of the disparate pieces, but there is a lingering sense that maybe he doesn't want to learn everything.

      Serving as Leonard's foil much of the time is Pantoliano's Teddy, a good-humored, fast-talking character who actually bears little resemblance to Pantoliano's other fast-talking characters, like Ralphie on The Sopranos. You're not sure whether the beefy-mustached, simpatico-seeming Teddy is around to help or hinder Leonard, but at least he spurs his forever-befuddled pal to focus.

      In contrast, the porcelain-featured Moss maintains an air of cool reserve, which the movie uses to good effect. Natalie can convey steeliness in her icy blue eyes or familiar intimacy in the way she tugs on Leonard's sleeve. He's not sure where the balance lies, and neither are we.

      Mixed in with the reverse-order flashbacks are black-and-white scenes showing Leonard on the phone discussing the puzzling case of Sammy Jenkins (Stephen Tobolowski), a man who suffered from a similar "condition." These forward and backward elements come together by the end to explain what really happened.

      At least you think they do. The key to a puzzle movie is the feeling that everything ultimately fits together, even if you couldn't instantly articulate how. As satisfying as The Usual Suspects is, I don't think the plot actually passes the credibility test; why would the villain go to all that trouble?

      I'm convinced, however, that Memento makes sense, even though I've seen it twice and still haven't figured out how to place a final few pieces inside the frame. Not that I'm complaining; most current thrillers do all of the thinking for you and wind up leaving you in a passive stupor.

      Because Nolan has done such a fine job of making sure his revelations and jokes have impact, he can trust that his audience will want to do some of the mental heavy lifting. The mystery -- and Nolan has given his movie the perfect last line -- isn't just what lies behind the narrative gimmick but also the mystery of how people selectively construct the narratives of their own lives. Like Leonard, viewers may find themselves uncontrollably driven to examining the clues over and over.

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