USA, 2000. Rated R. 113 minutes.

Cast: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Stephen Tobolowsky, Harriet Sansom Harris, Jorja Fox, Callum Keith Rennie, Larry Holden
Writers: Christopher Nolan (screenplay) & Jonathan Nolan (story)
Music: David Julyan
Cinematographer: Wally Pfister
Producers: Jennifer Todd, Suzanne Todd
Director: Christopher Nolan


Grade: A- Review by Carlo Cavagna

The Greek myth of Sisyphus is the story of a mortal who, after defying Death, was sentenced by the gods to spend eternity in a futile endeavor: pushing a heavy boulder up a mountain only to have it roll to the bottom each time he approaches the pinnacle. In his short essay Le Myte de Sisyphe (1942), novelist and existentialist philosopher Albert Camus enjoined us to imagine that Sisyphus is happy. All life's endeavors are absurd, wrote Camus, and the struggle toward the heights is itself "enough to fill a man's heart." Conscious of his tragic fate, the existential man chooses it anyway. He embraces it.

But what if Sisyphus is not conscious of his fate? What if, every time he sets about rolling the rock up the mountain again, his memory of the previous attempt has already faded away? What if he has no memories at all? Does he know why he's pushing the rock? Can he be sure that he's even pushing the right one, or that he's on the right mountain? Where is the nobility in his endeavor now?Guy Pearce in Memento

These are some of the questions posed in Memento, where Leonard Shelby (L.A. Confidential's Guy Pearce) is cast in the role of a brain-damaged Sisyphus. A head injury sustained while intervening in the brutal rape of his subsequently deceased wife has left him with no short-term recall. His memories from before the injury are intact, but he is completely unable to form new ones. If he has a conversation, by the end of it, he won't remember what was said at the beginning. He goes through life feeling as if he has just awakened. But he has a rock to push--a goal that keeps him going. He is hunting down his wife's killer to avenge her death.

How can such a man, who cannot be sure of anything, pursue this goal? Leonard has his methods. He explains that organization and conditioning (forming habits) can make up for the inability to remember anything. Leonard carries Polaroids with notes in his pocket, and he tattoos vital information on his body. His wife's killer's name is "John G.," for example, and he is a drug dealer. At least, that's what Leonard's notes say.

Memento has one of the most unusual narrative structures you will ever see. The story runs along two entwined tracks. The first track, filmed in black and white, consists mostly of Leonard having a telephone conversation in his hotel room with an unknown person, in which he explains his methods and talks about his life before the accident. Leonard's Polaroid of Teddy (Joe Pantoliano)Although the first track runs through the whole movie, it occurs at the beginning of the story, chronologically speaking. It delivers most of the exposition and provides a running commentary on the second storyline, until they join together at the end of the film.

The second track runs backward, from end to beginning. Memento begins with its denouement, and each following narrative segment concludes with the beginning of the previous segment. Thus Memento recreates what it's like to be Leonard: at any given moment, we have no idea how or why we got where we are. We have only the information Leonard has in his pockets or tattooed on himself. Nevertheless, Leonard doggedly pursues his investigation, with unexpected and sometimes amusing results.
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During the course of his investigation, Leonard runs into Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Teddy (Joe Pantoliano). Beyond the short notes he has written to himself ("She will help you out of pity," regarding Natalie, and, "Don't believe his lies," regarding Teddy), Leonard has no idea who they are or why they are in his life. They do seem to know him, though. It's appropriate that these two are played by The Matrix vets Moss (projecting melancholy iciness) and Pantoliano (projecting smarmy friendliness). They remind us that not everything is as it seems, that reality is subjective, and that there is no spoon. Unfortunately, the reminder is lost on Leonard, who probably doesn't remember seeing The Matrix.

Unlike The Matrix, Memento doesn't offer clear-cut answers. It is a film about subjectivity, and so the truth remains just beyond our reach. At the end of the movie, we're still not sure of what is real and what is not, and it seems as if there may be some logical flaws. When Memento comes out on DVD, we will be able to program our players to play the movie in its proper chronological order, and we'll be able to judge better how the story holds together. But even after repeated viewings, we may find that making sense of Memento is itself a Sisyphian task. Then again, Camus would probably argue that arriving at definite answers is an absurd goal, and isn't the point of a film like Memento. The point is merely to search for them. That's where the pleasure in Memento lies.

: The official site for this film contains a great deal of fascinating background information on Leonard and his condition, presented as news items, document scraps, and Polaroids--information that helps fit the pieces of the puzzle together. We recommend it highly to people who have already seen the film, but it is not for people who haven't (unless you just want to see the trailer and production notes).

Review © April 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2000 by New Market Films. All rights reserved.

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