(director/writer: Christopher Nolan; screenwriter: based on a short story by Jonathan Nolan; cinematographer: Wally Pfister; editor: Dody Dorn; cast: Guy Pearce (Leonard), Carrie-Anne Moss (Natalie), Joe Pantoliano (Teddy), Mark Boone Junior (Burt), Stephen Tobolowsky (Sammy), Jorja Fox (Leonard’s wife), Harriet Harris (Mrs. Jankis), Callum Keith Renni (Dodd), Larry Holden (Jimmy); Runtime: 118; Newmarket Group; 2001)
“This is a sparkling but forgettable film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Britisher Christopher Nolan’s (“Following“) well-conceived jigsaw puzzler thriller plays like 1940’s film noir but, unfortunately, offers the viewer no final payoff in the traditional sense. Instead it plays as an exercise that forces the viewer to look at the moral implications of the story and not be concerned with nailing the right murder suspect. In the end it’s as empty as a wet dream.
It’s the story of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) who has a lean body and spiky dyed-blond hair. He can’t make new memories after the incident where his wife was raped and murdered. When he awoke from his sleep and tried to rescue her, someone hit him on the head causing his brain damage. Revenge is now the only purpose in life for this San Francisco thirtysomething former insurance investigator. He is dressed in fancy designer clothes and is driving a Jaguar with Nevada plates. These are things he can’t recall how he obtained, as he cruises the barren Southern California landscape of cheap motels and deserted warehouses hoping to locate the murderer.
In his condition, Leonard can only remember things for about 15 minutes and then he becomes a blank. But Leonard does not have amnesia, as he will carefully explain in a mantra-like explanation to those he encounters; he does this every time he meets someone old or new so that they will understand where he’s coming from. Leonard can remember everything about his life until his wife’s death, which is his last real memory.
To get into the swing of this film requires a suspension of disbelief (The plot has one major hole in it and that is — if he has a short-memory disorder how does he know he has it…and…if it was as severe as it is depicted, in my opinion he would be in a mental institution or under home-care). But the filmmaker expects us to just accept his condition and if one is able to, the film plays as an exciting mind trip where Leonard tries to piece together his current life by writing tattoo messages and instructions all over his body. This writing on the body parts reminded me of the Peter Greenway film about calligraphy, “The Pillow Book.” He also uses facts instead of memory to gather evidence as to who the murderer is, by taking Polaroids and writing notes to himself as constant reminders. The film’s other gimmick is that it starts from the conclusion and works its way forward. To indicate that this is so, a Polaroid photograph will fade instead of develop. So after only a few minutes into the film, we will know that he has killed a man he calls Teddy (Pantoliano); that he blames him for his wife’s murder. Teddy might be an ex-con known as John Edward G. or he might not be him, we can never be sure. We are stuck like Leonard, not quite sure if he got the right man or not. All we know is that Leonard wrote “John G. raped and murdered my wife” across his chest and accused him of murdering his wife. On the Polaroid of Teddy’s it says: he tells lies. Teddy is the one who is seen most often with Leonard as he goes on his investigation and he seemed to be a jolly fellow, but with a morbid sense of humor.
Who knows what’s the truth here! The film is open to any interpretation. Nothing is crystal clear, everything is ambiguous. Leonard learns through fragments what is going on as he tries to put it together from what he knows for sure his life was like before the incident, and the audience views the film as Leonard does his life. New characters come in and out of his life, and we must also be stuck like Leonard and try to sort them out and see who’s telling the truth. A Polaroid of his motel reminds him where he’s living. Burt (Mark Boone Junior), the motel desk clerk, takes advantage of his condition and cheats him by charging him for two rooms. A Polaroid of the troubled bar-maid, the mystery woman named Natalie (Moss) says: “She has also lost someone. She will help you out of pity.”
A tattoo on Leonard’s hand says “Remember Sammy Jankis.” Sammy (Stephen Tobolowsky) is someone whom the former insurance investigator definitely remembers, as he had the same short-memory disorder due to an accident but was denied medical coverage upon Leonard’s recommendation that he be tested for a psychological disorder. His insurance doctors will prove it was a psychological rather than a physical injury and that his insurance doesn’t cover that. This proves disastrous to his diabetic wife (Harriet Harris), as her life turns to hell trying to live with her hubby without medical help. She also believes the same way the insurance people do, who think her husband is not trying hard enough to overcome his illness, rather than believing her husband. Through these glimpses of what happened to the insurance investigator which are filmed in black and white, we try to understand how that case relates to him. What lesson he gathers from it– is not what he morally did to that family, but that he must be organized and gather the facts like a good insurance investigator does. That he must be instinctual and not rely on his failed memory.
This is a sparkling but forgettable film. The craftsmanship excels thanks to Christopher Nolan’s tight direction and the acting excels thanks to the skills of Guy Pearce. I would tell you more about this gimmicky film noir, except I have already forgotten what it is that I wanted to tell you.
REVIEWED ON 4/27/2001 GRADE: B-