THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Leonard Shelby has a problem. Someone has raped and murdered his wife. In the process of the crime, Leonard himself was thrown into a mirror. As a result of his massive head injury, he now has short-term memory loss. He remembers all the old stuff but can't make new memories. Whatever he encounters now will be gone within 15 minutes - people, places, things all forgotten.

This is the set-up for Memento, a positively brilliant thriller that easily ranks as one of the year's best films. Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential) plays Leonard, who is tortured by the tragedy that has affected his life. He is determined to find his wife's killer, and as he conducts his investigation, he uses Polaroids to help him remember things. Information he knows for certain is then tattooed onto his body.

One of the clever things about the film is that writer/director Christopher Nolan tells the story in reverse. In other words, you watch one scene, then watch the one that immediately proceeded it chronologically. The story therefore begins with Leonard shooting lowlife Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) in retribution for the murder of his wife. But how did he come to discover that Teddy was the killer? What evidence led to this conclusion? The film goes back scene after scene to fill us in.

Guy Pearce uses Polaroids to help him remember in Memento
The technique, at first, might seem pointless but it works. Leonard interacts with characters and we have no clue who they are. A scene or two later, we understand how they came into the plot what they mean. One such character is Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss of The Matrix). She provides a perfect example of how suspense is created. Leonard has taken a Polaroid of her, and on the back he has inscribed these words: "She has lost someone too. She will help you out of pity." But above that, something else has been scratched out. What was his initial impression of her and why did it change? And which one was right?

There's also a bit involving a nasty looking scratch on Leonard's face. I could barely control myself, waiting to find out how it got there.

There are all kinds of things like that in Memento. Nolan has more tricks up his sleeve than a magician, but all of them fit perfectly into the story. They are not just for show. Telling the story backwards also gives you a sense of Leonard's affliction; you have to struggle to remember what you just saw. What's amazing is that this jumbled time structure actually adds tension (Nolan is the only filmmaker I've ever seen who can create a plot twist in reverse). There is also a second parallel story - a flashback, really, about a guy Leonard knew who also had short-term memory loss. The flashback provides some clues into the mystery.

The performances are also first-rate, with Pearce delivering a searing performance as the troubled Leonard. It's hard to play a blank slate, but he does so in a turn that is Oscar-worthy. Pantoliano and Moss are good as well; they have the tricky task of creating full-bodied characters without giving too much away. (See the movie and you'll know what I mean.)

I have intentionally left out a lot of details about Memento. Like The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense, this is a movie that constantly pulls the rug out from under you. There are little plot twists all the way through, capped by a wallop of a surprise at the end (or, should I say, the beginning?). You must pay absolute attention. Do not, under any circumstances, get up to go to the snack bar or the rest room during this film. You'll miss too much and ruin one of the coolest, twistiest pieces of movie mystery ever made.

( out of four)

Memento is rated R for violence, profanity, and some sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.
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