DECODING THE PAST also means encoding it. History's what we make it, as discovered by a man bent on avenging his wife's murder. In this smart, surprising Sundance favorite, Leonard's investigation is complicated by short-term memory loss incurred at the scene of the crime. Although not an amnesiac, he must use an elaborate system of self-prompting to recall the clues in the case. His pockets full of Polaroids and Post-it notes, his skin covered with mnemonic tattoos ("Consider the source," reads one), Leonard literally forms his own body of evidence. Each time he wakes or pauses, he finds himself the unwitting agent of predetermined retribution.
written and directed by Christopher Nolan with Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Joe Pantoliano runs March 30- April 12 at Egyptian
Played by Australian actor Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential), Leonard first appears during the commission of a seemingly cold-blooded shooting. In immediately juxtaposed black-and-white flashback (a recurrent motif), he warily asks himself, "Where are you?" It's a question viewers may also wonder, given Memento's backwards narrative structure. Like the Hindu wedding episode of Seinfeld, each scene begins with a missing context supplied by the one that follows (for us)—the one that precedes it (for Leonard). Thus, each scene also becomes a little mystery in its own right, echoing the larger whodunit. It's less confusing than it sounds: After the shooting, we see what led up to it in successive steps until we end with Memento's proper beginning.
After showing a knack for inventive plot twists in his succinct 1998 debut film, Following (which played locally last October), Anglo-American director Christopher Nolan here adapts his brother's original story in a seedy low-rent L.A. reminiscent of Tarantino's Jackie Brown. By so entertainingly complicating a simple revenge plot, Nolan reminds us how Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects have similarly reinvigorated old crime flick clich鳮 Storytelling is as much the subject as vengeance. Leonard's unreliable narration, though often funny and affecting, leads the spectator astray. We can't trust him; he can't trust himself.
ALONG THE WAY to his presumed revenge, Leonard encounters two figures who also have cause to distrust him. Both are played by familiar faces from The Matrix: Carrie-Anne Moss is Natalie, whom Leonard believes; Joe Pantoliano is Teddy, whom Leonard doubts. Each of them gets an identifying Polaroid that Leonard duly annotates, yet his crucial scribbled comments naturally get shorter as Memento moves forward (backward). Every successive episode reveals another antecedent layer to Leonard's inquiry, filling in blanks for us that he can't remember.
However, Leonard's faith in his mnemonic "system" is too certain. "Memories can get distorted," he says. Outraged, Teddy—Nolan's most problematic character— rebukes him, "You can't trust a man's life to your little notes and pictures!" (Hasn't the guy ever heard of a Dictaphone?) Moreover, in Memento's least successful aspect, Leonard is looking for closure about his wife's death, hoping to remember that event and somehow heal himself. This subplot distracts from Memento's otherwise hard-boiled film noir appeal and economy. Leonard's expository flashbacks and monologues may also be too self-consciously linked to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but those are likewise small quibbles to such an ingenious little film. It holds your interest with one puzzle, then makes another of its protagonist.
Amnesia is an old device in pulp fiction (or soap operas, for that matter), but Memento dusts it off to good effect. It's not a work of great depth, but it's a movie of satisfying complexity—which will send many back for second viewings. (Later, presumably, the DVD will allow one to recast events in their conventional order.) Unlike most stuff at the multiplex these days, you can't predict where this picture is going or what its quote-unquote ending will be. For Nolan and the movies, that feels like an assured step forward.