PARK CITY 2001 REVIEW: Don't Forget
"Memento," Solid Thriller of Memory Loss
Patrick Z. McGavin
(indieWIRE/01.21.01) –“I can’t make new memories,” says Leonard, the plaintive, existential protagonist at the center of Christopher Nolan‘s second feature, “Memento.” This solid, effective thriller has a fascinating texture, propelled by a brilliant premise that transcends its stylistic and narrative repetition. As its title suggests, this is a work about the ineffable, and that very fragmentary, incomplete aspect gives the movie its kick.
When first presented at the market in Cannes, I was struck that, given its play on memory and time, space and recollection, it felt like something directed by Alain Resnais or Raul Ruiz. Furthermore, the evocation of Los Angeles by an English director recalls Stephen Frears‘ 1990 adaptation of Jim Thompson‘s “The Grifters.” Thompson wrote the dialogue of Stanley Kubrick‘s 1956 “The Killing,” one of the touchstones of a new generation of filmmakers working against a bleakly stylized landscape. Christopher Nolan adapted a short story by his brother Jonathan, and the situations, distinct sense of place, class distinction and sleazy, lower depth tawdriness is deeply characteristic of Thompson.
“Momento” is unmistakably postmodern, complicated, and undermined by a self-negating center. Leonard (Guy Pearce) is a terse, violent avenger obsessed with finding and killing the man who raped and killed his wife. The psychological trauma and subsequent sexual anxiety — frustratingly underdeveloped — has incapacitated him, depriving him of his short-term memory. The very nature of consciousness — incident, detail, conversation, emotion, action — is the ultimate blank space that is continuously erased, manipulated and bent to the demands and vagaries of the moment. Leonard conjures up his past — his work as an insurance investigator, the disjointed, poetically charged images of his wife — though the spontaneous, present tense remains permanently blurred and unformed.
“Memento” opens with the enigmatic shapes, colors and pixels of a Polaroid photo of a bloodied body, the image of which fades as time flows in reverse. The movie’s color sequences also proceed in reverse from this action, where accretion of detail, evidence and motivation achieve higher levels of ambiguity, uncertainty and suspicion. A work of intense subjectivity, “Memento” interrupts the procedural search to turn on a more philosophical inquiry of identity. In these sections, shot in black and white, Leonard is stranded in a forlorn hotel room where he conjures up his own doppelganger, Sammy (almost too perfectly played by the inevitable Stephen Toblowsky). He’s a large, heavy lidded man reduced to a child-like passivity following a minor car accident, and denied his memory, his past, and the almost primal attachment to his wife.
Leonard is imprisoned in his body, though perversely it becomes his principle instrument of memory and recollection. Like a Peter Greenaway film, Nolan is fascinated with examining the body as text. Except here, it takes on a literal meaning. Leonard has turned his body into a scroll, outfitted with tattoos containing elemental, crucial information, the number of a license plate, the name of the man he believes responsible for this brutal act. He carries index cards, photographs, notes, any material evidence to authenticate or guide his quest.
Additionally, the Pinteresque backward flow summons two recurring people who repeatedly dance and hover around Leonard. Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) is either a con man or facilitator of the truth of whom Leonard is naturally suspicious. “Don’t believe his lies,” Leonard writes on the margins of the Polaroid he snapped of Teddy. Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) is weary and sad, her life also governed by an irreconcilable absence, the disappearance of her lover. The inarticulate characterizations only contribute to the confusion and uncertainty about their motivation, desire and attachment.
“Memento” functions most effectively as a deconstruction of type. This movie is about erasure, and its refusal to explicate the unknown is the central part of its frequently magnetic, compulsive quality. By repeatedly contradicting itself, the movie is constantly posed as a question; the subtext is the very intractability of the form. By leaving so much open — about whether there existed a sexual relationship between Leonard and Natalie, Leonard’s actions during his wife’s rape, Leonard’s connection to Natalie’s lover — Nolan achieves not resolution but a more problematic portrait of distress and possibly even delusion.
The fascination of “Memento” is that its strengths and weaknesses are intertwined. It is resourceful though limited. The shift between color stocks is too schematic and ungainly. The oppressive point of view and restrictive use of locations gain a haunting representation of Leonard’s alienation and extreme discomfort, his profound sense of entrapment and isolation creating a vivid feeling of loss. Nolan’s artistic colleagues are essential collaborators, especially the quick, anxious cutting of Dody Dorn, the fluid, precise imagery of cinematographer Wally Pfister, and the tawdry production design of Patti Podesta. Their inspired work elevates the professionalism and accomplishment of the work.
At the same time, I’m not sure “Memento” could survive repeated or intense observation without its failures becoming more obtrusive. To his credit, Christopher Nolan offers something different. “Memento” is evidence of an imposing talent demanding to be heard.