How Do You Spell “Wow” backwards?
As I left the theater, my mind clouded with all of the images and story of the film, I realized that I had seen a great addition to the film noir canon. I pass the line of people waiting for the next showing.
The film ends and the lights come up. Wow! Wow spelled backwards is still Wow! I get up and leave the packed independent theater.
I have heard a lot of good things about “Memento”, the new noir film from writer – director Christopher Nolan, and I am not disappointed. Movies like “Memento” are perhaps the hardest to write about. I have to be careful to not give away anything. Anything at all. If I do, I will rob a moviegoer of a potential surprise.
Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is in the middle of a mystery. He is trying to find the man who raped and murdered his wife (Gorga Fox). Leonard has a problem that further complicates this mission. The trauma of his wife’s death has robbed him of any short-term memory. He can remember who his wife is, how to drive a car, etc., but anything that occurs to create a new memory will be forgotten. Leonard must rely on notes, tattoos on his body and Polaroids of his friends, enemies, places he lives, etc. He can’t talk to people for very long, because he will ultimately forget who they are. He can’t talk to people on the phone, because he has to see their eyes, a skill he learned as a former insurance investigator. During his investigation, he meets Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss) and Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), two people that may or may not be his allies.
If “Memento” were laid out in a typical chronological fashion, it would be an interesting film with some good performances. Christopher Nolan, the writer and director, decided to tell the film backwards. The first indication of this is the first shot of a Polaroid undeveloping. We see a picture of a man’s body in the corner of a deserted room. The hand holding the photo shakes it a few times, it becomes lighter. Shakes it a few more times, and so on, until the picture pops out of the camera. We then see the climax of the film first, shocking us into the film’s different reality. As the film rewinds, we see Leonard slowly unraveling the mystery that leads up to the climax and the detours that he takes along the way. Each segment of the story is just a few minutes in length, the length of Leonard’s memory. This helps the audience really feel for Leonard’s plight. We essentially have the same problem Leonard does. We don’t know what happened before, so everything is new to us, just as it is to Leonard. This construction is really brilliant and it is a testament to the skill of Nolan that the film does not seem as gimmicky as I just described it. We quickly buy into the world he has created and it seems natural.
To provide a break from the rewinding story, Nolan inserts an ongoing telephone conversation between Leonard and an unseen caller between each of the short segments. In chronological fashion, Leonard recounts the story of his most important case as an insurance investigator, the case of Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), a man with a very similar case of short-term memory loss, and his wife, Mrs. Jankis (Harriet Sansom Harris). The story of Sammy Jankis provides a very human aspect to the story and allows us to see Leonard as a normal human being. The story also helps us to understand Leonard’s plight.
Guy Pearce is simply phenomenal. In each brief segment, he has to start each by figuring our what is going on, trying to figure out if the people around him are helping him or should be avoided. It doesn’t sound like the character would allow a lot of time for development or allow the audience time to identify with him, but Pearce makes it happen. Because he is used to the problem, he knows to act quickly. He makes the character work hard throughout to find the source of the mystery. The scenes when he is on the telephone, recounting the story of Sammy Jankis also help to humanize the character. Much of the flashbacks present a different Leonard, providing a nice counterpoint.
Carrie-Ann Moss is very good as the required Noir femme fatale. She has a simply amazing couple of scenes in the middle of the film during which we quickly see who she is, what her role is and how deeply Leonard’s problem affects him. She is a very strong character. Joe Pantoliano plays Teddy, Leonard’s ally. Leonard plays along with Teddy despite the Polaroid in his pocket labeling Teddy a liar. Teddy is a very complex character who likes to talk and he talks a lot. During his many conversations, he also takes advantage of Leonard’s problem.
“Memento” is a very memorable film, sure to delight you with its twists and turns.
The house lights go down as the last minute stragglers try to find seats.
I read the newspaper, waiting for the film to start.
I buy my ticket very early. I know from the buzz that I need to buy my ticket early. A lot of people will want to see the film tonight.
I do not mind paying full price for my ticket. Everything I have heard leads me to believe that I will enjoy the film immensely.