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Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2001

No remembrance of things past


Rating: * * * * * Director: Christopher Nolan Running time: 113 minutes Language: English Now showing

Here's a sad but true fact of life, dear readers: We live in an era where mainstream films are made with the assumption that we're not paying attention. Hollywood films are geared toward that ADD-diagnosed pinhead in the back row, checking his mobile, scarfing down popcorn and carrying on a conversation while "watching" the flick. If that guy can't keep up to speed with the plot, goes the logic, make it dumber!

Guy Pearce in "Memento"

This is even true of mysteries, once delightful puzzles that dared you to solve them; now they are roller-coaster rides loaded with so many implausible and unforeseeable last-reel "shocks," that trying to figure things out is the height of futility. ("The butler did it!" "No, it was Osama bin Laden!" "No, it was O.J.!" "No, it was an alien controlling Lee Harvey Oswald, who's not really dead!" "No, . . . ")

In this light, "Memento" is one of the most radical films you'll see this year: It dares you to keep up. Stop paying attention for even a minute, and forget it, you'll be scratching your head when the credits roll. They're accurately billing this as a "rewind movie": "Memento" kicks off with its disturbing climax -- a brutal and incomprehensible murder -- and spends the next two hours spiraling backward through time. Halfway though, a flashback starts moving in the opposite direction, fast-forwarding at collision speed. Did the right guy get whacked? Doubts linger like bloodstains on asphalt, and mystery fans will be right back in the queue for a second viewing.

With "Rashomon," Akira Kurosawa famously illustrated the notion that memory can't be trusted. With "Memento," director Christopher Nolan takes it a step further: What do you trust if you don't have any memory? That's the problem facing "Memento's" protagonist, Lenny (Guy Pearce, "L.A. Confidential"), an insurance claims investigator who suffered brain damage from a trauma -- specifically, his short-term memory. Lenny remembers everything up until his accident, but has lost his ability to form new memories, forgetting everything as soon as it's happened. He wakes up every morning, thinking "Where am I?" Imagine reading this review, and by this point, you no longer remember what it's about. Scary? Yes.

Still, Lenny is more troubled by what he does remember than what he doesn't: His last memories before the shock that shattered his mind are of an intruder in his house and the murder of his wife. Now, despite his handicap, he's determined to track down the killer and take revenge into his own hands. Lenny has two clues: the killer's initials (J.G.) and an automobile registration number. He preserves these and other vital pieces of information by tattooing them onto his body. His other technique is to take a lot of Polaroids -- artificial memory storage, as it were -- and to jot down his own impressions on them, such as "She will help you because she pities you," "Don't believe his lies" and "He's the one. Kill him."

But his lack of memory also leaves Lenny ripe for manipulations. Both Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss, "The Matrix"), a battered bartender, and Teddy (Joe Pantoliano, also of "The Matrix"), an undercover cop, claim to be helping Lenny, but seem to have different agendas. In classic film noir fashion, Lenny can trust no one except himself. And, for a guy who can't remember who he's talking to five minutes into a phone conversation, maybe that's not such a good idea . . .

Lenny is one of cinema's least likely detective (maybe right after Dude in "The Big Lebowski"), so Pearce is able to fashion the role from scratch since his character is about as far removed from genre conventions as you can get. He gives Lenny some dazed spaciness, but also a sort of stray-cat street smarts, an instinctual suspicion hard-wired into his slightly spooked gaze. Pantoliano, as he proved in "The Matrix," is a master of slightly suspect smiles, the back-slapping buddy whose eyes shift just a bit too much. Matching him is Moss with an equally cagey character; she keeps everything tightly wrapped until an absolute mind-bender of a scene.

Unlike Hollywood fare, where blood-soaked vengeance is served up as a fulfilling conclusion ("closure," as they say), "Memento" suggests a more ambiguous result from vigilante justice. "Even if you get revenge," points out Natalie, "you're not going to remember it." To which Lenny replies, "The world doesn't stop when you close your eyes." The multiple levels of irony contained in this dialogue don't begin to blossom till you've hit the last reel, as we discover to what extent Lenny's been operating with eyes wide shut.

It's Nolan's flawlessly constructed story structure, though, that keeps us looking farther into these characters, desperate for hints as to their intentions. Nolan makes you think backward in trying to piece together Lenny's predicament, and by the film's end, you'll feel as scrambled and frantic as Lenny himself. Perspective is everything in cinema, and few films have been as successful as "Memento" in immersing you into a character's mind-set. See it on the big screen -- if you have the luxury of video-remote control, you'll be rewinding every five minutes and spoil all the fun.

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