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By Gabriel Jinich
In its attempt to sustain an audience's interest, the thriller has always relied on the question of "what's gonna happen next?" "Memento," the new post-modernist film noir by director Christopher Nolan, tries to do the same by having us ask "what happened before?" The fact that he succeeds in doing so, despite telling a story that is not particularly profound or involving, is a very impressive achievement. This should have been a brooding experimental exercise in form, yet Nolan actually delivers a thrill-filled, entertaining yarn.
"Memento's" first scene is the last event of the story: Leonard (Guy Pearce) finally discovers the true identity of the mystery man he's been pursing and proceeds to kill him. The next scene in the movie is the previous event in the story, and it ends where the previous scene began. And so on and so forth. Although it sounds confusing, you soon get the hang of following what is essentially a movie told in reverse. The justification for this odd story-telling style comes from the nature of our hero, Leonard. His wife was raped and murdered, and in the incident he suffered a blow to the head that injured the part of his brain that is responsible short-term memory. He remembers everything about himself before the tragic incident, but since then can only remember events for a few minutes a time. Leonard uses Polaroids, notes and self-inflicted tattoos as substitutes for memories, and every fifteen minutes or so he must relearn everything about his current life: where his car is, where he's staying, who his friends are, and that he must discover the man who raped and murdered his wife. Pearce plays him cynically, as someone who through subconscious repetition learns to accept his unusual fate.
The true miracle of "Memento" is that, despite revealing the ending right away, Nolan and his brother Jonathan (who wrote the screenplay) manage to stay true to the story-telling form: this thing has development, slowly building suspense and, unbelievably enough, even a climax. And in an odd variation of a current cinematic trend, how the story began in the first place is "Memento's" surprise "ending."
To some people, though, the ability to ingeniously and originally tell a story is subservient to the story itself. If you accept that point of view, then "Memento" does fail. Take the same story, assemble the scenes in correct chronological order and observe: it would make an absolutely banal and quite silly film. If, on the other hand, you put the story in the back seat and let Nolan masterfully take you through it by the hand, then you'll be in for a great ride.