It’s sometimes dismissed unjustly as pretentious, but English writer-director Christopher Nolan’s Hollywood debut, the head-trip Memento, remains a film experience that disturbed and astonished me.
Leonard Shelby (a relatively unknown Guy Pierce looking haunted and tortured) plays a man whose wife has been raped and brutally murdered. We’re not sure by who, exactly how and even when. And this is because the movie unfolds from the point of view of Shelby who suffers a hit to the head during the murder that robs him of his episodic declarative memory. In other words, he can only remember things for a brief period of time (minutes) before they are gone from his memory.
So determined is he to track down his wife’s killers that he deals with this problem by creating his own personal information management system. He leaves notes for himself – in a diary, on post-its, on the back of hurriedly taken Polaroids and as words tattooed on his body – often desperately before he forgets again.
There are two narratives in this movie but the one that does the heavy lifting is filmed in short episodes going back in time. In essence, Nolan robs us of knowing what comes before, binding us to the turmoil created by Shelby’s short term memory loss. As the story back-spools, we come to know of the events that have just faded from Shelby’s memory.