Take away memory and you're nothing. That's the disturbing thump of the dark heart of writer/director Christopher Nolan's gripping, stylistic neo-noir "Memento." The film is distinguished by an engaging and rare (though not unprecedented) narrative device -- the story unfolds backward -- and a shrewd plot that pays homage to the film noirs of old. And yet, despite its smarts, dry humor, and narrative maze, "Memento" falls just a tad short of greatness. The goods may be delivered with style and panache, but they're fairly conventional goods just the same. If you're more interested in the journey than the destination, though, the movie's a lulu of a ride.
The man without a memory is insurance investigator Leonard Shelby (Australian Guy Pearce, best known to American audiences by his roles in "The Adventures of Priscilla," "Queen of the Desert" and "L.A. Confidential"). More accurately, Leonard can remember everything up to a brutal assault on his wife that left her dead. No longer able to retain new information for more than a few minutes, Leonard surrounds himself with Polaroid snapshots of things (such as his car) and people, on which he writes helpful descriptions ("Don't believe his lies," or "She will help you"). Determined to find his wife's murderer, Leonard also etches tattoos of the most crucial details on his body. As in all good mysteries, however, nothing is as it seems -- and no Polaroid note means exactly what Leonard, or we, think it means.
Nolan, who based his zigzagging script on a short story by his brother Jonathan, lifts the essentially B-movie plot into engaging territory by taking audiences backward from Leonard's "solution" of the mystery of his wife's killer and over the bumpy terrain that led him there. Along the way, Leonard is both helped and hindered by cheery rogue Teddy (Joe Pantoliano, of "The Sopranos" and The Matrix) and world-weary bartender Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss, another "Matrix" alum), both modern-day twists on noir archetypes. Nolan steers audiences through the maze of Leonard's confusion by showing a brief scene, then showing a longer, detailed scene that leads up to and overlaps with the original, shorter scene, giving it cohesion and meaning. It becomes a game of sorts for viewers; for instance, we see a character with scratches, then anticipate learning how they got there. The backward-plot device isn't new: "Pulp Fiction" toyed with it, and Harold Pinter's play "Betrayal" used it outright, as have TV shows such as "China Beach," "Seinfeld" and "thirtysomething." But it seems fresh because it demands we pay attention to detail rather than sit back and be spoon-fed each tidbit of information, as we do when watching most Hollywood films.
Pearce, who in his past work was frequently overshadowed by more famous co-stars, handles the demands of playing a frantic empty slate brilliantly, making Leonard's anger and frustration over his condition his guiding lights. Like the audience, Leonard's not quite sure what he's doing, or why he's doing it, even as he's doing it. He's a lost soul if there ever was one, and Pearce gives him an essence of humanity and tragedy that saves the character from the vast nothingness brought about by his misfortune.
But "Memento" is nearly done in by its cleverness. As the pieces of the puzzle of Leonard's search fall into place, one senses that things are unraveling just as they do in any ordinary whodunit. Standing back from Nolan's playful manipulation of time and space, astute viewers, racing over the plot details, may conclude that they've been had. Crucial details that come to light late in the game are never fully explained, leaving the resolution opaque at best, in the tradition of that most bafflingly complicated of noirs, "The Big Sleep." One also suspects that had the story unfolded chronologically, there would have been very little substantive or new to it. Perhaps it's asking too much for the denouement to have as much kick as the telling, but then again, a more solid story might have lifted "Memento" into the realm of greatness.
Early raves for "Memento" prove that both audiences and critics (who see many more films than is good for anyone) are starving for creative, stimulating cinema. For the most part, Christopher Nolan provides it, breathing life back into traditional cinematic storytelling. But he ought to remember that, fun and games aside, the end should always justify the means.