The question “How did I get here?” begins every other scene like a chapter heading, and is apparently the only organizational tool in Memento. Leonard (Guy Pearce) suffers from a condition that prevents him from forming new memories and essentially forces him to live his life like a computer without a hard drive. Leonard starts each scene by surveying his surroundings and assessing his situation because, like goldfish, every lap around the fishbowl feels like his first lap around the fishbowl. The trick with this film is to get the viewers to feel just as confused as Leonard. But how do you do this when the viewers, unlike Leonard, can remember how one scene led the next? The answer: film it in reverse.
Memento is so confusing there are actually YouTube compilations splicing the scenes into chronological order. The original version, however, begins at the end and shows Leonard confronting the man who killed his wife in an abandoned, secluded house. Leonard gets his revenge and then, after a sudden cut, he’s in the city rushing out of a motel room to meet his good buddy Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), also known as the man he just killed… or will kill if we were watching this chronologically. When the motel scene catches up to the murder, there’s a sudden cut and we’re now two scenes back, watching Leonard wake up in the motel room before he heads out to see Teddy. Memento is a totally bizarre film because we see the outcome before the cause, like a line of falling dominos captured on rewind. The only way this plot can work is to have a climax at the conclusion and at the beginning. This way we run from one catastrophe into the jaws of the next. But Memento is not just a film about learning how we got to where we are; we’re also trying to piece together who killed Leonard’s wife in a way that a brain with Dory-level memory lapses cannot do.
Watching a movie in reverse is a whole different experience from watching one the old fashioned muggle way. For one thing, you, like Leonard, never know who to trust. I think it was written this way so that the viewer can feel as close to Leonard’s world as possible. People who are enemies turn out to be friends with enemy-like habits, and vice versa. Christopher Nolan’s brilliant direction also helps to disorient and confuse, beginning blank-memory scenes with tight, blurry frames so that we’re as confused by the surroundings as Leonard.
And poor Leonard is always so terribly confused. He keeps notes about people and clues to the murder, tattooing important facts on his body so as not to lose track of them. The problem is that Leonard doesn’t always check his facts. He seems a bit too trusting of his sources when he takes their information and runs off to the tattoo parlour. And what will he do when his wife’s murderer is caught? Get a fresh one saying “I did it” across his chest? Did what, Leonard? Paid rent? Did laundry?
The character isn’t quite all there (mentally or emotionally), which can be a tough role to play. Guy Pearce does a pretty good job of feigning ignorance, but he slides through the entire movie on monotone. The supporting actors, Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss, do well at faking emotional outbursts to trick or influence Leonard, but in the end it’s really Memento’s unusual screenplay and direction which take the cake. Because it’s so unconventional, I will give those cake-taking parts 9 slices out of 10.