Memento (2000) Reviewby HaydnSpurrell
Christopher Nolan’s Memento is a loose adaptation of the short story Memento Mori, written by his brother Jonathan Nolan and based on a concept he pitched to Chris during a road trip the two took in the late 90s. Since its critically acclaimed release, it has become a film many cite as one of the best of its decade.
While it’s often described as a nonlinear film, this isn’t necessarily correct. True, two separate threads run through the film with different time stamps, but each of these play out in a chronological order. The colour scenes start from the moment our protagonist, Leonard, played by Guy Pierce, shoots and kills his acquaintance, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano). From there, we piece together why this happened as the film works backwards from that point. The black and white sequences mostly take place inside of Leonard’s apartment, before everything that we see in colour. The two story-lines meet at the center by the end of the film, and if it sounds confusing for those who haven’t seen it, that’s because it should. It’s without a doubt worth watching the film two or three times. A couple of months after the brothers came up with the story, the film's director had the idea to tell it backwards. He did, however, write the screenplay in order (or; starting at the end) first, and re-ordered it afterwards.
It’s a masterfully edited film. Each scene working backwards through the narrative ends a few seconds into the end of the previous scene in the movie, cluing its audience into the fact that what we’ve just seen takes place before the last. It’s the perfect example of structure benefiting story, as we’re forced to experience Leonard’s short term memory condition as accurately as possible. Leonard’s story is a tragic one; his wife is murdered and he is injured so extensively that his brain can no longer create new memories. He tattoos his body with notes and reminders, all information that will help him to learn who murdered his wife. Nolan, a noted lover of film noir, utilizes many of the tropes inherent in the genre, albeit much of it with a twist. We of course spend most of the film piecing together the mystery, but the script offers many curious turns borne directly from the hero’s debilitating injury.
Carrie-Ann Moss plays Natalie, the film’s femme fatale and a character who offers plenty within the confines of her subplot and with some rich material. Brad Pitt showed much interest in playing the lead role, but scheduling conflicts ruled him out. Pearce, as it turns out, was perfect for the part. He brings a balanced combination of pain and determination, making for many standout sequences such as during a monologue in which he ponders how he is supposed to mourn and move on when his perception of time has been erased (an example of the complex themes the film meticulously handles). David Julyan’s synthesized soundtrack adds a sombre, soulful backing to Leonard’s story.
Initially written in sequences of five minutes each, these become longer the further we get into the film. We’re plunged deeper into the mystery, and more questions bob up. Each colour scene acts as a hook of its own, committing its viewer to the next just so that an answer might be offered. The final scene of the film – the chronological beginning of the story – mirrors the opening scene in which Teddy is shot. Both scenes take place in an abandoned warehouse, and both involve a dead body. There’s plenty of this symmetry right throughout, such as when, in the black and white scenes, Leonard tells an unknown caller on the phone about Sammy Jankis. Sammy was a man who suffered from a similar memory problem, and whose wife’s claim for insurance at the company Leonard worked at was knocked back due to it being deemed that, physically, Sammy should be capable of retaining memories. Leonard himself notes the irony in this.
There’s a constant sense of curiosity and sorrow as we learn more about Leonard and see others taking advantage of his illness. The lengths that the character goes to so that he may have a purpose to keep on living are staggering, and he slots right into a world so utterly mundane and real that his story feels at times enormous but at other times as small as anybody else’s. Many of the kernels of Nolan’s future films are front and center in Memento, such as his preoccupation with time and memory as dramatic and central themes, major ending reveals raising more questions than answers, and the damaged hero’s quest after suffering loss. The difference here, as opposed to all of his other films, is that we’re given Leonard’s point of view from start to finish. Despite him being an unreliable narrator, nearly everything we see are things he sees. At times, this isn’t true – sometimes we see moments that Leonard misses so that we’ll understand the kind of manipulation that’s being exercised on him – but even in these cases Leonard would not remember if he had seen them anyway.
Memento is structurally genius filmmaking. It’s a film that will be studied and talked about for a very long time. It stands out amongst modern crime dramas not only due to its editing but also its unique hero, whose heroism is even questioned by the time credits roll. From the very beginning, Nolan is committed to presenting something we haven’t seen before, a bold choice for a relatively new director at the time.
The very first shot of the film features a hand waving a Polaroid image in the background of the credits. Only, the photograph doesn’t become clearer, but instead fades away. Leonard’s memory might fade just as the image does, but Memento has earned its place in the memory of filmgoers, and will not fade from memory quite so easily.