From the opening moments, which are set in a grimy hovel in the middle of nowhere, we learn that our antihero, Leonard (Guy Pearce from L.A. Confidential), is a nasty killer with a weird habit. He coerces a squawking fellow named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano from The Matrix) down to the ground, demanding, "Beg my wife's forgiveness before I blow your brains out!" That's not so unusual -- it probably happens every day in America. Ditto when he makes good on the threat and Teddy's blood splatters the wall. But then Leonard takes a Polaroid of his handiwork, and it's clear that something's freaky about his brain.
Although the press materials attempt to trumpet this story as "blending the suspense of film noir with the mind-probing universe of neurological research," let's just say that Leonard's problem is gimmick No. 1. Someone named "John G." raped and murdered his wife, and during the attack Leonard sustained brain damage, so while he remembers everything up to that point, he can no longer retain new memories. (In essence, he's a sullen pothead.) Also, because of some unspoken previous trauma, he is terrified of palm organizers, so -- much like the wretched antihero of Tom Tykwer's Winter Sleepers -- he keeps a scrapbook of his present experiences in the form of Polaroids, hastily scribbled notes and instructional tattoos covering much of his wiry body.
Gimmick No. 2 has less to do with noir lifts than with structure and organization, and this is really the movie's biggest strength. Rather than laying out the scenes more or less chronologically, Nolan sends the viewer into a spiral of confusion by telling his story backward. Simply, each segment precedes another that would have come before it if the story were told straight. While we sort of know where we're going to end up, we have no idea why, nor does Leonard most of the time. Adding constant snarls along the way, no one matches the identity they're claiming, fostering an atmosphere of total distrust and paranoia.
This must have been fun for the actors, for in lieu of much substance, they get to go overboard with loads of rage and affected posturing. When the mysterious Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss, also of The Matrix) works her way into the narrative, she first seems to be a tasty femme fatale, someone Leonard wants to trust and maybe even save. But before we know it, she's spouting poetry such as, "Maybe your cunt of a wife sucked one too many diseased cocks and turned you into a fucking retard!" If that weren't overheard so frequently in line at the post office, it may have had more impact. Here, Moss delivers appropriate intensity, but it's always on the edge of being funny for the wrong reasons.
Overall, Memento's biggest problem lies in its tone, which Nolan seems desperate to push over the edge into bleak, hardcore nihilism but which comes across more often as geeky silliness. It's almost as if he's filching from David Fincher (Seven), struggling to show us how bad he can be, when a higher priority would be to give us some reason -- any reason -- to give a damn about these characters and their mindless, nonsensical sadism. While the editing (from Dody Dorn) is top-notch, and the moody, gritty atmosphere (crappy Southwestern motel hell) feels appropriately awful, the movie seldom rises above its status as a puzzle-box for enraged and impotent souls.
Where the movie does succeed -- and rather well -- is in its sense of hopelessness and loss. "How am I supposed to heal if I can't feel time?" Leonard asks himself. Occasional doses of cruel humor (opportunistic motel managers, beer glasses as spittoons) actually bring the sorrow closer to the surface, and nothing about Leonard's youthful Sting hairstyle or flashy Jaguar can hide it. Trapped in his own malfunctioning brain with photos captioned "Don't believe his lies" and "She will help you out of pity" as his most trustworthy guides, the guy seeks vengeance for its own sake. It's literally a hell of a way to live.
Adding much depth to Leonard's shallow, maddening quest is the very welcome presence of a parallel story -- also told in dubious flashbacks -- regarding a man named Sammy (Stephen Tobolowsky), who suffers a similar mental condition.
Both as a direct connection to Leonard (who studied Sammy's case as an insurance inspector) and as a mirror of his totally detached sense of the present, the characterization is rich and moving. Watching Sammy slip while his wife (Harriet Harris) desperately tests him makes for queasily satisfying psychodrama. It almost makes up for the movie's sub-T.J. Hooker chase sequences.
Apart from that, however, there's not much to Memento, and if its elements were arranged chronologically, there'd be almost no draw at all. As it stands, it's a passable diversion, but imagine if hit films had always relied on this gimmick: We'd have all-new perceptions of Jaws ("Let's reassemble that big shark and go swimming!"), Blade Runner ("Oh well, she's a skin job, so I think I'll just walk around mumbling in the rain ...") and The Wizard of Oz ("Kansas again? Shit! What the hell happened to all the flying monkeys?").
Although it's being trumpeted for its undeniably ambitious narrative structure, Memento feels mostly like an audacious prank, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." It may be that Nolan is not so adept at mystery, but rather just unprepared to deliver characters with strong identities.