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Kudos to writer/director Christopher Nolan for making such a risky picture, one that attempts to run its scenes in reverse chronological order from last to first. To take on such a thing is unexpected, and it takes a unique plot and characters to make it work. On the merit of the concept alone, this movie impresses, but that its realization is so sound is what's really astonishing. The fact that the murder is the first thing, not the last thing that the viewer sees does not preclude the tension from mounting as the film moves backward in time. And the pieces are in place to make an exciting story whose structural strangeness is itself gripping.
I'm lucky to have friends who decided to test whether the continuity was all that it's cracked up to be. Using a lot of rewind and fast forward, they watched the scenes in chronological order after seeing it once through; and they claim that it holds together pretty well, notwithstanding the unanswered questions that remain at the end of the movie (before the beginning of the chronology).
Guy Pearce plays Lenny, a one-time insurance claims adjuster who was attacked with his wife at some point before the beginning (after the ending) of the movie. His wife was tragically killed, and his dain was bramaged. The nature of his mental injury is that he cannot form short-term memories. He has long-term recall of his life, but after the attack, he cannot retain what happens on a day-to-day or moment-to-moment basis. This is why the backward structure of the movie works so well. Though his life has been shattered, his prior wealth enables him to devote his days to hunting down his wife's killer in a bid for bloody vengeance.
Because he has no short-term memory, he has devised a calculated, rigorous system of investigation and note-taking that gets him not only through his daily interactions, but also helps him track down his object of wrath. It’s a tough slog, though, as he’s surrounded by murky-hearted characters all too willing to take advantage of Lenny’s combination of no memory, burning anger, and a finely honed body. Women take note: the shirtless scenes are plentiful, and the character’s tattoos only accentuate Pearce’s fine sculpturing.
Did I say tattoos? As Lenny solves bits of the crime, he arrives here and there at immutable truths, like in the game of Clue. When he has these pieces of truth completely proven, he tattoos them on his body, so that they will be indelible signposts toward the solving of his mystery and the realization of his vengeance. Eventually, his left thigh will say “Mr. Green,” his bicep will say “In the conservatory,” and his six-pack abs will say “with the revolver.” Then he’ll take his own lead pipe and go after Mr. Green.
While the solving takes place, a parallel exploration occurs into the nature of memory. Lenny's notes-and-Polaroids system is an externalized version of a normal person's memory banks. Lenny delves into the nature of factual reality and its interpretation through the memory. The monologues and dialogues alone wouldn’t be as interesting if the film itself didn’t offer a differing point of view to Lenny’s philosophizing; but as it is, the questions have some meat on them even if their implications exist more in the mind of the active viewer than in the fabric of the film itself.
Even with all his certainty, backed by theoretical soundness, Lenny’s facts still remain highly fallible. In fact, the ending (beginning) of the film is not conclusive. There may truth in the liar’s tale, and Lenny may have turned into a loaded gun used by others to get what they want. In this film noir, characters lie to his face knowing he won’t remember the lies for the truth. Indeed, his is manipulated mercilessly by Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), who may be either a crooked cop or a two-bit hood; and by Natalie (Carrie Ann-Moss), who blatantly uses him, but seems also to fall in love with him.
In this flurry of vague reality, it’s hard to feel for any of the characters. They are all rather despicable. Even Lenny, victim that he is, is such a heartless killer that one is left more with a sense of ickiness than of sympathy. Mainly, it’s the story itself and the fascinating construct in which it is delivered that recommend this film. The acting is neuvo-noir, all understated and icy. The setting is an undetermined town in the US and its sleazy haunts: bar, motel, warehouse, residence. Even the plot, which ends before it begins and really starts long before the viewer gets involved is not as gripping as the very nature of the telling.
Some continuity problems do exist (how could they not), and some questions remain intentionally unanswered. With all of this, though, the tale is interesting enough to keep a viewer well engrossed.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.