Let's make a deal. Let's make a pact between me, the Reviewer, and you, the Reader.
In exchange for your promise to run (not walk) to see Memento, I won't reveal any of the movie's secrets. I won't tell you, say, that Bruce Willis is really dead, or that Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze. But you have to promise to see this movie. You have to swear that you'll see it and take everyone you know and thereby prove to our local theater owners that there is an eager audience for good independent films like this one and that they don't need to use 10 of their 24 screens for The Mummy Returns.
Because, trust me, we want more movies like this one -- inventive, compelling, and worth seeing twice. Directed by Christopher Nolan (his second feature-length film) and starring Guy Pearce (the conniving, geeky Ed Exley of L.A. Confidential), Memento is a startling murder mystery in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock, and a bundle of promise for everything that follows from Nolan.
The story: Leonard Shelby (Pearce) lost his wife in a brutal murder/rape, and he's determined to find her killer and avenge her death. The police are uninvolved, so Leonard is left to solve the crime himself. But he's severely handicapped: due to brain damage suffered while fighting his wife's attacker, Leonard has no capacity for short-term memory. He can remember everything that happened prior to the accident, but everything since is forgotten -- over and over again.
Gathering clues leading to his wife's murderer, Leonard has developed a complicated system to remind him of where he's been and who he's met. He takes Polaroids of people and places and jots names and notes on the photos. He draws impromptu maps to significant locations. When he discovers an indisputable fact, such as the name of his wife's killer, he tattoos it onto his body. Leonard's skin serves as an investigation notebook; when he takes off his shirt and pants, his body reminds him of his purpose and directs his pursuit.
Nolan, who wrote the screenplay based on a short story by his brother, Jonathan, uses a variety of cinematic and storytelling devices to keep us in the game, including interspersing black-and-white and color photography and supporting characters that slip in and out of action elusively so that, like Leonard, we can't determine who is for him and who is using his memory loss to their advantage.
The most strategic device is an inverted timeline. The story begins at the end and works backward, giving us -- and Leonard -- tiny clues to discover how the tumultuous plot pieces together. We experience Leonard's frustration; like him, we have no memory of what has come before.
The logic here isn't flawless. One wonders, for example, how Leonard can remember that he can't remember. And cine-philes on the Internet are already debating whether the movie's surprise ending holds water. But it's worth suspending your disbelief. Memento takes you places that you'll want to go. Guy Pearce is spot-on, as are his co-stars (Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano, both of whom you'll recognize from The Matrix). The script is breathless and smart, leading us around blindfolded while asking important epistemological questions: How do we know what we know? Is memory reliable? How much do we interpret the world for ourselves?
How -- and whether -- those questions are answered ... well, it's part of our agreement for me not to say.