Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is out to solve the murder of his wife – a crime the police are convinced has already been solved. The problem? He suffered a head injury in the attack that left him with no short-term memory. Relying on photographs, his own notes and tattoos of important clues, he struggles to hang onto his sanity with only the mystery – and revenge to keep him going.
First, the premise is great. Left with no short-term memory, Leonard can remember everything up until the night his wife died but can’t form any new memories. Unable to follow a lengthy conversation or recognize people that he just met, he’s forced to take photos of everybody he meets on his quest and jot notes on the photos as to whether they are friend or foe – notes that aren’t always as clear as he’d like. Important clues are tattooed onto his body so he won’t lose them, but even those rely on his ability to find a tattoo parlor before he forgets. Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Ann Moss may or may not be helping him, but the viewer can’t be any more sure than Leonard himself is.
Director Christopher Nolan also took the novel approach of revealing the film along two different timelines. The story starts at the end and begins to re-ravel itself backwards. Interspersed along the way are “flashbacks”, which play in the correct order to provide background to the disjointed scenes of Leonard’s tale. Although it makes the film take some effort to follow, the result is to leave the viewer just as bewildered as the hero – we don’t know how he got there anymore than he does until the two timelines collide at the end (making the end of the film sort of the middle).
Memento just may be too smart for its own good. Underneath the slick direction lie some obvious plot holes. Carrie-Ann Moss’ character makes no sense. Similarly, in an effort to make Pantoliano’s character a devious semi-bad cop, he is made into some sort of twisted criminal mastermind and – again – his motivation makes no sense. Pearce’s “disability” is the big selling point of the film – and is used to great effect along the way – but his ability to explain it to people doesn’t hold up to much observation, either (if he can’t remember anything, how can he remember what’s wrong with him?).
Despite its warts, ‘Memento’ is a film that will definitely stick with you. The unusual premise, as well as the non-linear storytelling make up for what should have been a straightforward story and the occasional questionable plot or character point, making it definitely worth the effort for anyone who is really willing to sit down and watch a whodunit, instead of just flip on a movie as some background noise.