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Pearce is a battered man with a mission in 'Memento'

Friday, April 20, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Arriving late to a movie is never a good idea, but if you miss the beginning of "Memento," you will miss the ending. Literally.


RATING: R for violence, language, some drug content.

STARRING: Guy Pearce, Joe Pantoliano, Carrie-Anne Moss.

DIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan




The thriller starts at the end and then spins backward. Watching it is like rewinding a videotape, looking at a passage, and then rewinding a little more. Just when you think you're getting a handle on things, you see what came before -- and your impressions and illusions are shattered.

In a world where 1970s TV cartoons are being resurrected, second sequels are limping to the screen and the term grossout is too tame for some comedies, "Memento" is a thinking person's mystery. Being puzzled in this topsy-turvy universe is a moviegoing pleasure.

Opening today at the Manor and Denis theaters, "Memento" stars Guy Pearce, a lean, handsome Australian with chiseled cheekbones, as a San Franciscan named Leonard Shelby who has a rare and untreatable problem. He suffered a head trauma that left him unable to form new memories. He cannot convert short-term memory into long-term memory; he can meet someone in the morning and not recognize him that afternoon.

Trying to navigate through life this way would be challenge enough, but Leonard is a man on a mission. He is hunting for the man who raped and murdered his wife -- and bashed in his head. Attempting to describe what his condition is like, he tells a motel clerk, "It's like you just woke up," but the fuzziness never clears.

To help him keep track of the clues that would otherwise evaporate, Leonard writes things down -- on the Polaroids he compulsively takes. And on his body.

He has turned his skin into a permanent Post-It Note, with self-styled or professional tattoos. The inky message "John G. raped and murdered my wife" marches across his upper chest. "The Facts" are burned onto his inner arms. A reminder about the telephone is seared into his skin.

If he didn't jot it down, he wouldn't remember and he considers himself disciplined and organized, not like a man named Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky) who suffered from a similar memory muddle. During his previous incarnation as an insurance claims investigator, Leonard had encountered Sammy.

Leonard holes up in a discount motel in Southern California and proceeds to meet an assortment of people who may or may not be trustworthy. Chief among them are a motel clerk (Mark Boone Jr.), a brunette bartender named Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) and a mysterious but friendly fellow named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) who seems to want to help.

By the time the movie ends almost two hours later, you are forced to re-examine what you thought was true. And to contemplate the concepts of memory, truth, revenge, loss, healing and self-examination. It's no coincidence that some of Leonard's tattoos are backward, so he can read them in the mirror. What you choose to see and recognize is one of the themes.

Watching "Memento" is an exercise in faith, that director-writer Christopher Nolan will reward our patience and show us the assembled puzzle. Using a combination of color and black-and-white film, Nolan gives us glimpses of images that appear to be one thing and are really something else.

"Memento" is mesmerizing because of Pearce, who begins to resemble a rebel surfer with his blond hair brushed upward and his face bruised. I have to confess that when I first saw him, on the run and looking for his wife's killer, he reminded me (briefly) of a bottle-blond Tim Daly in the TV pilot for "The Fugitive," but that image faded.

Pearce is an actor who has not fallen prey to overexposure or repetition. In "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," he was a flamboyant drag queen. In "L.A. Confidential," he was a bespectacled, straight-arrow detective. In "Ravenous," he was a military officer banished to a desolate outpost and confronted by cannibalism. In "Rules of Engagement," he was a no-nonsense prosecutor.

Here, he brings a little of everything to the party, generating sympathy for a man who wants to avenge his wife's death -- even if he knows he won't remember that he did it. Vigorous support comes from Pantoliano, currently the made man Tony loves to hate on "The Sopranos," and Moss, most recently in "Chocolat" and "Red Planet."

Despite the grim hunt, Nolan manages to inject some dry humor into the story, as when Teddy says Leonard's memory problem allows him to tell the same jokes again and again.

"Memento" tosses a lot of information at us toward the end, and probably would benefit from a second viewing. Still, it's a bold method of storytelling. And after you've seen the movie, check out the Web site where you will find a news story with highlighted words you can click on. Clues not found in the movie are there and like the ones etched into the skin or scribbled on the backs of Polaroids, they're all written down.

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