So much for the notion of the mystery as a reactionary form, a genre about the joys of reestablishing a status quo of law and order. The whodunit that is Christopher Nolan's Memento spirals away from certainty into a wilderness of lies, not least those told by the "hero" to himself. The viewer of this clever film discovers the rush of dislocation--of making it up as she goes along--even as the mind scrambles to find something to hold onto, something that's "true." It's like watching Along Came a Spider backward, watching the killer's identity disappear or even mesh with the cop's. After all, there's usually a murder on both ends of a mystery: The killer kills a victim, and the cop and/or state kills the killer. Where the story begins determines who is in the right of it.
In fact, Memento does unspool backward. (The story is broken into fragments filmed in regular, forward-moving time, but each fragment tells what happened before the last one.) And it doesn't give too much away to say that the cop--if he is one--dies at the beginning (which is actually the end). So a murder is committed, but the film very quickly makes the murderer a sympathetic fellow. Leonard, played with devious ferocity by Guy Pearce, explains that he is trying to avenge his wife's brutal rape and murder. His wife's assailant also beaned Leonard, leaving him without short-term memory. He can remember everything leading up to getting whacked, but, as he tells the clerk at his motel, he cannot create new memories; every 15 minutes his brain is wiped clean. The motel clerk nods. "You told me that story already," he says.
Writer-director Nolan drops the viewer into the same situation as Leonard. Characters show up, talking as though they know Leonard, but we don't know anything about who they are or how they might know him. The only clues he and we have are the Polaroids he has taken, with notes written on them. This person Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), for instance, appears friendly, yet underneath his picture is written, "Don't believe his lies." This woman Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss) looks the classic femme fatale; her picture reads, "She'll help you out of pity." What to trust? Forget emotions, Leonard says. Forget memory. Only facts are dependable. When he discovers a fact--or a helpful bit of advice--he has it tattooed on his body. (Who knew the little brown-noser from L.A. Confidential was so proudly built?)
To underline Leonard's episodic consciousness, Nolan interrupts the backward narrative with black-and-white segments from a different time frame. In the same motel, but in a different room, Leonard wakes and talks to a caller about his life before his wife died. Included here are flashbacks with the wife (Jorja Fox) and another memory-disabled man (Stephen Tobolowsky) whom Leonard met through his former job as an insurance-claims investigator. Slowly Memento makes it clear that even these "normal" memories did not necessarily happen as Leonard remembers them. Even what Leonard considers bedrock fact becomes fluid matter. Tattoos can be erased.
Is this confusing? Absolutely. Yet Nolan, in his second feature, almost always prevents confusion from slipping into frustration. Pearce's Leonard, for all his strength and confident talk of facts, shows himself to be haplessly (and willfully?) naive: He's continually being played, and I couldn't help caring. Director of photography Wally Pfister delights the eye with his careful attention to color and contrast. And the casting of the supporting players is brilliant. Tobolowksy and Pantoliano have appeared in so much TV and film that their faces are instantly recognizable--as is Moss's, thanks to The Matrix. To a certain extent, they're all acting against type, and against audience expectations. Nolan keeps the bait-and-switch going past the end (I saw it alone, which was a mistake--I needed to hash out who did what to whom with somebody else).
Indeed, Memento may become too much of a head game. Eventually I realized I couldn't trust anyone--there's no Mulder and Scully to lean on--which made me step back emotionally. Granted, Nolan doesn't want the viewer too involved, because he wants to make a point about the untrustworthiness of cinema. "You feel angry, and you don't know why," Leonard says about his condition. "You feel guilty, and you don't know why." In a way, he stands for the movie viewer, manipulated by light playing on a screen. Who is haplessly, deliberately naive? Who is continually being played? When the killer kills, who is helping him pull the trigger? "Can I just let myself forget what you made me do?" asks a bloody Leonard. Sure he can. Sure I can. The next movie will start in 15 minutes, and it's a comedy.
Something beyond meta-madness powers Memento, though, granting it a raw resonance. The uneasy giddiness of Leonard's experience feels very familiar, as does his irresponsibility, his defensiveness, his hurt. He is a person without a home, without a history. "I have to believe in a world outside my own mind," he says, and he means a human world of order, of cause and effect. But science, ecology, anthropology, etc., increasingly tell us that a fact changes depending on when it is seen and by whom--that the very act of witnessing alters the situation witnessed. Stepping into this uncertainty is as awesome and scary as freefall on a roller coaster.
Also, a reality so malleable may be easily fabricated. Did willfully ignorant Leonard learn mystification from that outside world? What if rewriting history is as simple as Attorney General Ashcroft proclaiming, under oath, that, no, he never discriminated based on skin color? What if an entire country's memory has become something manipulated by players acting in their own short-term interest? You feel guilty, and you don't know why. You feel angry, and you don't know why. Welcome to the new status quo: the law and order of confusion.
Memento starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.