I have been walking around for a week trying to find the time to write this review because, quite honestly, this is one of the best movies I have seen in years. The more I think about it, the more impressed I am. I haven’t felt as exhilarated (expressed, in this case, with repeated bursts of stunned profanity) coming out of a movie theatre since, I don’t know, 1998. By exhilarated I mean the raw joyous thrill of experiencing an amazing concept that has been fully and perfectly realized. Having said all that, I have built it up too much, and it will never be as good as I say. Oh, but it is.
Guy Pearce (LA Confidential, Ravenous, Priscilla Queen of the Desert) plays a man whose wife was attacked and killed in their home; at the time of the incident he sustained a serious head injury, which has affected the part of the brain responsible for encoding new memories. As a result, he lives his life every minute as if he has just woken up in the middle of something he has never seen before. He develops a system for remembering, consisting of notes and polaroids and tattoos, and he’s hunting the man who killed his wife. Investigation without benefit of memory, revenge without benefit of resolution – for if he finds him, will he remember afterward? An interesting premise, but that is only the backbone, the hook to get you in the theatre.
The real beauty of it all lies in the screenplay. Because Leonard (Pearce) can’t make new memories, but we as an audience still can, a straightforward narrative would rob us of the sense of disorientation and mistrust he feels in every waking moment. Writer/director Christopher Nolan (Academy members take note) shoots the film in reverse sequence, scooting slowly backwards in time, sometimes repeating himself to make the overlap clearer, but always filling us with a sense of unbelievable suspense and dread and fascination. We know, within 2 minutes of the film rolling, how this manhunt turns out – but we don’t know how it got there, and the journey backwards, back through Leonard’s experiences and questions being answered and then unanswered and then asked, is amazing to watch. My companions and I all wished that we could just keep watching it. I realized after 90 of its 120 minutes I could probably literally watch it another three hours and be totally riveted. Bad ass!
As if the initial idea were not enough, interspersed with his hunt is a story from before the accident, where he met a man with a condition similar to his own, and his misery at not having understood it as being real at the time. This line of remembrance leads to all sorts of doubt with his present condition, as well as opening new doors of potential truth. One of my companions, a neuroscientist, was convinced that the writers were neuroscientists as well, so accurate were the details. This in my mind is as ringing an endorsement as my aerospace engineer friend giving the thumbs-up to a sci fi movie.
The acting is natural, seemingly effortless, so the performance feels real. Coupled with the unique disorientation of the reverse chronology, and we feel as connected to his search as the Polaroid camera strapped under his jacket. Pearce is driven and driving forward, always forward, although he can never truly know what progress he has made – he has to trust the people around him and his record keeping; it’s simply amazing. I can’t discuss the more specific plot points without giving anything away, but watch what people do very carefully – a character hides all the pens in the house before doing something rather surprising – many of the tattoos on his body supply information we will never know where he got. In any given moment of action in the film, we don’t know what happened 30 minutes earlier any more than Leonard does. We have no idea if what we are watching is what should be happening. When we back up further, we have the benefit of seeing the “future” and how it has come from what we are watching now – and we still don’t know how we got here. Bloody fascinating. Fantastic.
Check out the website, too, http://www.otnemem.com. Very very very cool.
MPAA Rating R-language, drugs, violence
Release date 3/30/01
Time in minutes 120
Director Christopher Nolan
Studio Newmarket Film Group