Guy Pearce did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite earning a few critical citations, for portraying Leonard Shelby in Memento.
The role of Leonard Shelby is a most unusual challenge for an actor. Most leading parts have some sort of character arc they follow through the film changing in some way as the film progresses. Well Leonard Shelby is a character incapable of such changes in the long run, but not in the short run. Guy Pearce must start fresh in every scene that he has with Leonard as Leonard completely forgets what he just did at the end of the last scene. This seems like something that would possibly make Leonard a character who does not go anywhere, as well technically speaking Leonard never does learn anything, he is incapable of learning anything, but Leonard is made a fascinating character because Pearce makes every scene in the film a self enclosed character arc for Leonard.
Firstly though Leonard does have some constants as Leonard does know who he is, or at least believes he knows who he is, and has his own set of routines he uses to attempt to deal with his rare disability which prevents him from creating new memories. Pearce is excellent in showing this routine that Leonard has devised for himself for how he should interact for every situation. We can see the problem in Pearce's performance as in the start of every new scene Pearce starts with the sense of bewilderment, and the attempt to try to hone in on things to figure out what it is that he is doing exactly. This is one of the best narrations given by Pearce here as his voice always accentuates the learning process and amplifies the strength of his physical performance.
Pearce is an actor with quite the substantial level of charisma which he uses perfectly here to once again show one of the instincts that Leonard has developed due to his condition. Most of the time there is a certain friendliness that Pearce conveys in the way Leonard greets just about anyone. Pearce shows Leonard talk to everyone in a welcoming way to almost cover up or at least excuse his condition to them. Pearce makes it not wholly natural though, as it should be, there is an effort Pearce suggests that Leonard has and that he must always bring himself to keep up his routine of treating everyone like he knows them in some way even he very well might have never met them for once in his life. Pearce properly keeps this with his performance as Leonard handles each situation, at least at first, with his developed instincts.
After the opening moments though there is any way that Leonard might go due to what might occur in the scenes. What might be the most common is Leonard being the detective hero. This one is frankly exactly where Leonard wants to be as Pearce plays it. When there is something that calls for him to be the hero seeking righteous revenge he wears the part as nicely as his well tailored suit. Pearce makes this Leonard's most comfortable act as there is an especially strong drive and conviction that Pearce suggests when Leonard thinks he knows what he is doing. Pearce is terrific in fooling you the way that Leonard is honestly fooling himself. Pearce makes Leonard a man happy to be detective as it is what gives his life the purpose and the direction he cannot find otherwise due to his memory less.
Pearce is our guide to Leonard's most peculiar situation and most a interesting guide at that as Leonard goes about telling his day to day life through the story of man he believes suffered from the same condition as he had. We hear Leonard tell the story of Sammy Jenkins throughout the film and Pearce is incredible as he slowly changes Leonard's manner as the tell the story. At first Pearce delivers it as just a simple sort of way as something he goes by but not something that means too much to him. Pearce though increases the connection that Leonard seems to have to the story as he slowly becomes more emotional and Pearce begins to allude that the story really might be about him. Pearce no longer shows Leonard as the confidant detective who can deal with issue as the fear, anguish and confusion appear which haunt Leonard.
Guy Pearce is outstanding in the way he plays this part with just the right amount of ease. This is not to say this is light weight in any way, but with Pearce's method there is the sense that since Leonard has been this way for so long he takes things in stride. Pearce's approach allows him to very naturally change his manner from scene to scene. Although this film is technically serious there are are actually a few great comedic moments found in the film which are particularly effective because of Pearce's performance. One of these moments being when he accidentally knocks out an innocent man because he misread one of notes. Pearce's reaction is hilarious because it is the reaction of man who just knows that these sort of things will happen with his condition so just a quick "sorry" would do.
There are not just comic moments in store for Leonard as deep down he actually is a tortured soul even if he can't remember that fact. Pearce is very moving whenever Leonard ever takes a moment to think back to his wife who he remembers as almost a puzzle at times. Pearce brings out a different side in these scenes as he portrays Leonard filled with a lament and a certain nostalgic. It is not just a love for his wife that Pearce brings out in these scenes, although that is there, he also gives the sense of Leonard grasping at these comforting thoughts not only in the traditional sense but as well in the sense that they are memories he still has while he exist currently in a world with no memories of anything good or bad.
Pearce is never at a lost in his performance and any scene wherever it may go Pearce stands firm as Leonard and stays believable. Pearce can go from one scene as a tender caring heroic gentleman to an intense man filled with violence. Pearce accomplishes this every time by creating these miniature arcs for the scenes. Pearce never rushes nor does he skips. He brings Leonard to every extreme point in a completely genuine fashion. In the final scenes of the film some rather disconcerting things come out with what has really been going on with Leonard. Pearce absolutely delivers with the revelations as he reveals the unstable nature of Leonard. When Leonard murder Pearce makes it as a call back to a seed of revenge, as soon as he knows its John G. Leonard can kill without hesitation as Pearce expresses this as Leonard's ultimate purpose.
Memento is a film that has received much high praise and much talk, but I find too often that Pearce is a bit of the unsung hero of the film. Pearce's performance is essential to the success of the film as his performance makes the unusual structure work as much as the screenplay, direction and editing do. With the wrong actor Leonard could have easily been just a boring character, a character completely overshadowed by the film's structure, or just hard to believe in all of the events of the story. He not only flows with the unconventional structure he does it with style. I love Guy Pearce here as he gives a great performance that allows the audience to easily follow the story through his assured portrayal, but gives every moment of the story have all the greater impact through his effortlessly ability to bring the best out of any scene no matter what the scene's tone may even be.