Grim film noir with a fascinating premise: a man on the hunt for his wife's killer suffers from an extreme case of short-term memory loss – and a fascinating structure: the film begins at the end and works backwards through a series of scenes, like Harold Pinter's Betrayal but with more twists.
Leonard (Guy Pearce) has been suffering from his affliction ever since he saw his wife raped and murdered. He remembers everything up to that point and, as he slowly tracks down the killer, he resorts to taking Polaroids of everybody he meets, writing notes, even tattooing significant clues on his body so that he can never forget them, even if they appear brand new every time he looks in the mirror.
At times the structure can be exhausting – the film is definitely a workout for the audience just to keep track of what's happening, and where we are in time – but the experience is very satisfying. Only the conclusion falters a bit (for me, anyway, but I can understand if others find it brilliant). I feel that Christopher Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan (on whose short story the film is based) were definitely reaching for some profound meditation on the inconstancy of memory and the idea that perception equals truth, but they got too caught up in their story details to find any room for a truly human connection.
Memento is, indisputably, a cold film. But it's certainly worth seeing, not only for its bold structure but for its fine performances by Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Joe Pantoliano. Leonard is a wonderful character, and the Nolans mine his predicament for all the comic and tragic elements to be found therein. Memento is one of the better movies of 2001.