Memento, Christopher Nolan’s obsessive and hypnotic thriller, unspools the dizzy, fractured tale of a man caught in his own private time warp. Leonard (Guy Pearce), frantic and disheveled, dressed in a bone white suit that looks as if he’s been sleeping in it for a week, is locked in a mission of blind vengeance, a hunt for the mysterious psycho who raped and murdered his wife. In his attempt to stop the assailant, Leonard got his head smashed against a bathroom mirror, and the violent cataclysm has left him without any short term memory. Unable to retain new information for longer than a few minutes (he can recall everything right up until the moment of the crime), he lives in a kind of perpetual present tense, his mind rewinding, over and over, in an endless loop, leaping from now to then and back again, a movement reflected in the audacious architecture of the movie itself, which is literally structured backward.
”Memento,” which may be the ultimate existential thriller, has a spooky repetitive urgency that takes on the clarity of a dream; it’s like an Oliver Sacks case study played as luridly malevolent film noir. Leonard tracks his investigation — and, indeed, his very existence — through a series of Polaroid photographs adorned with hastily scribbled captions that attain a nearly totemic significance (”Don’t believe his lies”), and by adorning his body with elaborate black ink tattoos of ”facts” and clues that add up to an enigmatic map of the killer’s profile.
Attempting to wrap his mind around the question mark of his own identity, Leonard may be cut off from his immediate past, but his present, as a result, exerts a singular fearsome grip. The film keeps overlapping back on the same fractured events, the same ambiguous characters — the weaselly ”friend” named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) who could be a drug dealer or a cop, the femme fatale-ish Natalie (Carrie Anne Moss), who may have manipulated Leonard into committing a murder on her behalf. ”Memento” has the uniquely disorienting quality of a puzzle that reveals its design the fewer pieces there are in place. It’s the rare mystery in which every moment lives.
Nolan is a moody craftsman of dazzling vision and skill. ”Memento” has scenes that command you with their cleverness, like the one in which we learn how Natalie got her bashed lip, or the moment when Leonard finds himself in the middle of a chase and can’t remember whether he’s the pursuer or the pursued. There’s a suggestion that he may be a sociopathic addict, unconsciously hooked on vengeance, yet Pearce’s extraordinary performance lends even the smallest events the aura of a life or death search, a quest for meaning.
The actor draws on the quicksilver intelligence he displayed in ”L.A. Confidential,” only here it’s mixed with a perilous vulnerability. Leonard, who has to trust nearly everything he’s told, is jaded yet as innocent as a child. ”Memento” remains ambiguous to the end, and that feels shiveringly right. We’re left with the disquieting sensation that memory itself is a kind of private inner flashback — and that, like Leonard, none of us can ever fully see the movie of our lives.