Okay, it’s time to stop looking for the best movie of 2001. We already have it. There will be a boatload of more popular movies, to be sure, because any film this complicated and witty and funny and sad and unnerving and… well, different, will turn off a lot more people than it will thrill. I won’t hold my breath for any Oscars either. It may get a nomination for the screenplay (because it would look suspicious if it doesn’t get at least that much), but the Academy likes movies that can be described in one sentence and this sucker almost can’t be described at all. Waitaminnit - this wasn't already released last year, was it?
Regardless, I trust it will do well because I hope against hope that people are tired of cookie-cutter action “thrillers” and gross out “comedies” and carbon-copy chick flicks (Okay, guys, all you who know the difference between “Chocolat” and “Like Water for Chocolate” raise your hands. You – in the back – she’s not looking, you can put your hand down. Thank you.).
What was I talking about? Oh yeah, Memento. Expect to get distracted and forget where you are and why you are there after seeing this movie, for it does to you what has been done to its main character. Ex-insurance investigator Leonard Shelby (don’t call him Lenny, he hates that) has an unusual disorder – his wife was raped and killed and he got a nasty knock on the head that left him with anterograde amnesia (don’t get too impressed, I looked it up), a rare condition that leaves a person without the ability to form new memories. His memory up until the moment of the attack is fine, but after that all he has to go on are his Polaroids and notes to himself (the more important clues he has tattooed all over his body to keep from losing them) to tell him where he is and what he’s doing. Where he is is a cheap motel in LA. Actually, they rent him two rooms because as the front desk guy cheerfully admits, how will he know the difference? What he is doing is trying to track down and kill the person who killed his wife and left him without the ability to remember anything that happened more than a few minutes ago. In the middle of a conversation with you, he will not only forget what you’re talking about, but who you are and whether or not he’s ever met you before. Which would make it really easy for unsavory characters or people with their own agendas to take advantage of him…
So far, so good. It’s a quite interesting and unique premise with intriguing possibilities, but that’s not the whole story. What writer/director Christopher Nolan decided to do in order to put the audience at the same disadvantage as Leonard is this: Tell the story backwards. Now not only does Leonard not know what has happened before, but neither does the audience. This makes for a movie that you don’t go for popcorn in the middle of – a movie that you give every last ounce of your attention to and still leave the theater trying to put it all together. In fact, you leave the theater trying to figure out when you have time to see this sucker again, if you’re me. Hell, it may take three times to put the whole thing together, but I suspect I’ll enjoy every minute.
Now where was I? Oh yeah. I won’t tell anymore about the plot, because to tell the beginning is to give away the end and to tell the end is to give away the beginning. This is one of those rare films where all you need to know is the basics and you just let the rest surprise you. A description of “Memento” sounds like a description of a smartass indie gimmick movie, and of course that’s what it is on the surface. What you don’t get from the description is the knowledge that not only does every gimmick work nearly perfectly, but every gimmick is absolutely necessary to the effect as well and the movie would fall apart without each one. As I said at the beginning (maybe… I don’t remember), this is the best movie of the year so far, and I doubt if this year will produce a better one. Several movies in recent years have tried to invent new cinematic storytelling forms to counteract the cookie-cutter mentality that is Hollywood. This is the one that finally achieves it.
Does this mean I recommend it? Not necessarily. I know people who didn’t like relatively simple movies such as “Pulp Fiction” or “The Usual Suspects” or “The Matrix” because they were “too confusing.” They ain’t seen nothing yet, and I wouldn’t recommend it to someone like that because I would soon get tired of the bitching and moaning that something like this would start. On the other hand, if you (like me) are sick of obvious formula flicks that waste your time and insult your intelligence, this is the breakthrough you’ve been waiting for. Write it down now, OK?
- A Review By Jason Pohlman