Even if Leonard Shelby gets his revenge, he won't remember it. This doesn't make his actions meaningless, he points out. He deserves revenge. Two guys attacked him - well, he thinks two. That's the first thing Leonard can't recall. The second is everything else. During the assault, Leonard blacked out. When he woke, he remembered life before the incident, but anything since stays in his head for only a few minutes. Then it all fades.
Again and again, he pieces his fractured memory together, goes to sleep, and when he wakes up he's not sure where he is or why he wants revenge. He can't retain any facts. So he tattoos his body with notes. Along his arms and legs, and down his thighs. Across his chest, written backwards so he can read it in a mirror, is this: “John G raped and murdered your wife.”
Here's the skinny on Memento: If Raymond Chandler had been beaten over the head with the works of Franz Kafka, he might have written a mystery as eerie as this.
Christopher Nolan's film noir, boasting an ingenious structure that'll be dissected by moviegoers now and forever, is a cinematic high-wire act, a story narrated from the completely subjective viewpoint of a deeply confused soul. So the pieces never quite fit together.
But none goes splat, either. A fairly conventional murder mystery on the surface - Leonard's sleazy hotel room, with dull L.A. sunlight breaking through curtains, could be “The Big Sleep Suite” - what's cool is how the film upends our idea of narrative. Rather than watch Leonard (Guy Pearce of L.A. Confidential) gather evidence, we learn what Leonard has forgotten. It's a revenge tale in reverse. The movie starts. A corpse bleeds from the head. Leonard stands over it with a smoking gun. To remember, he snaps a picture.
Revenge completed, right?
Not quite. Nolan is commenting on how memory lies, and how facts are malleable. For example, why is Teddy (Joe Pantoliano from The Matrix), a hanger-on, so anxious to help Leonard? That barmaid Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss, another Matrix alum) might be sympathetic or she might have an agenda. Leonard writes clues - “She will help you out of pity,” “Don't believe his lies” - on the back of Polaroids. But it's all based on observation and what people tell him, and when your mind erases every few minutes, what's to stop someone from messing with your head?
If Leonard has no short-term memory, maybe he didn't nail the right guy. If he did ... well, again, “How am I suppose to heal if I can't feel time?” he asks.
That's more than enough existential mind candy for one film, but Nolan takes it another step: He makes the beginning the end, and the end the beginning. The movie itself mimics Leonard's mind: after the initial gunshot, the film loops backwards after each scene, going further back in time, each disclosure altering the big picture, until the killer's identity is revealed.
Walk in three minutes late and you won't have a clue what's going on. Walk in on time and you'll be just as disoriented as Leonard. Giving us the film noir conventions (femme fatales, bad suits) as anchors, Memento upends the genre. The moment we're comfortable in Nolan's soot-filled snow globe, he shakes.