"Memento" is the film-school gimmick movie of the moment. Its antihero is a brain-damaged man who can't create new memories. His mind can hold only 10 or 15 minutes of reality at a time - and that's about how long this picture stays with you.
Despite his affliction, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) tries to track down and kill the culprit who clubbed him and (he believes) raped and murdered his wife. He uses a system of tattoos and Polaroid snapshots to retain short-term experience, extend his investigation and exact revenge.
The result is a ridiculously high-toned and cold-blooded murder movie: It starts with Leonard killing the ostensible bad guy, then re-creates the steps leading up to the crime. The director, Christopher Nolan, tells the story backward in order to put an audience inside Leonard's sieve-like brainpan. Like Leonard, viewers have no memories of characters they meet at climactic turns of the melodrama. As new information comes in via a cascade of flashbacks, we get to judge the truth of the "facts" Leonard etches on his body and the labels he puts on his Polaroids.
Is this a brain-teaser or a thumb-twiddler? Since the director controls the flow of information and metes out clues according to how well his antihero gathers them, all he tests is our attention spans. Nolan shows the same scenes in umpteen repetitions, adding to them only incrementally. And Leonard caves in psychologically the one time a character presents a story that runs counter to his own master narrative.
This is the kind of movie that gas-bag instructors use to illustrate the concept that one man's reality is another's fiction. But it's puny stuff compared to Kurosawa's "Rashomon," or one of those political mosaics from Francesco Rosi (say, "The Mattei Affair"). It isn't in the league of John Boorman's "Point Blank," Steven Soderbergh's "The Limey" or Bryan Singer's "The Usual Suspects" - fractured crime films that chart existential odysseys en route to surprise wrap-ups. The dramatic content in "Memento" is as blank as Leonard's post-traumatic mental state.
The only two supporting characters are figures out of "Film Noir for Dummies": the seedy, overly ingratiating helpmate (Joe Pantoliano) and the harsh, cryptic barmaid (Carrie-Ann Moss). The clubbing of Leonard and the assault on his wife recall those wearying wife-killing flashbacks in the Harrison Ford version of "The Fugitive." Indeed, though no highbrow journal will admit it, "Memento" is nothing more than an art-house cousin to "The Fugitive," down to the lunatic improbabilities. Just as Ford was both a super medic and a Tarzan-like he-man, Pearce's Leonard, a by-the-book bureaucrat, turns out to be a first-rate killer.
Pearce proved he could be charismatically steely as the goody-goody cop in "L.A. Confidential." But director Nolan straitjackets him. Leonard says he remembers his past as an insurance investigator and the home life he led until the murder, but the film doesn't divulge very much of it. Nolan doesn't root Leonard's obsession in his love for his wife, who wouldn't register at all were it not for Jorja Fox's distinctive presence in the role. (She played the bodyguard of the president's daughter on last year's episodes of "The West Wing").
Only Stephen Tobolowsky, as a sweet-tempered fellow named Sammy with the same disorder Leonard has, and Harriet Sansom Harris as his wife, generate any warmth. There's pathos to Sammy's story: Leonard denied his insurance claim and ended up sabotaging his marriage in the worst possible way. That pathos should rub off on Leonard's tale of woe - but it doesn't. Leonard's memory is no-stick and his soul is Teflon, too.
Why is "Memento" useful even as a film-school gimmick movie? Only because it illustrates the art of continuity - matching scenes so that they fit shot to shot, no matter how discontinuously they are filmed or put together.
The way I read the credits, the one who deserves a cheer and a half is the fellow in charge of the continuity - the script supervisor.
Nolan got the best script prize at Sundance for adapting his brother Jonathan's short story. But the guy who deserves to take a bow is Steve Gehrke.
Starring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Ann Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Stephen Tobolowsky, Harriet Sansom Harris
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Rated R (violence, adult language, drugs)
Released by Newmarket
Running time 113 minutes
Sun score * 1/2