I’ve seen a handful of the films that Christopher Nolan has directed over the years: Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Prestige (which has nothing to do with Batman). What they all have in common, besides Christian Bale (OK, it has a little bit to do with Batman), is that they are very good, and a bit more cerebral than the standard films of their genres. Memento, released in 2000, is one of his more critically acclaimed films, and a large part of that acclaim is that it is perhaps the most cerebral of his films. I didn’t catch the film when it first came out, and it somehow managed to elude me in the 12 years since as well; fortunately, though, I managed to elude spoilers of the film until I was finally able to see it for myself.
Memento stars Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, a former insurance investigator with a couple of problems. The first, which provides the plot of the film, is that his wife was murdered and he was assaulted, and one of the killers is still on the loose. The second problem, which provides the gimmick of the film, is that the attack left him with a brain injury, resulting in a case of anterograde amnesia. He can remember events up to the incident as perfectly as he could before his injury, but he is left unable to form new memories. He can hold things in his memory as long as he focuses on it, but if he goes too long without writing it down, it’s forgotten forever. Every encounter is a new one to him, every event has him feeling as if he’s just woke up in media res, and every morning he wakes up to find
it is, once again, Groundhog Day he has no recollection of his recent past. He relies on Polaroids, notes to himself, and — for permanent clues and warnings — tattoos (some self-administered) to keep himself in the loop of his progress.
Fortunately, tattoo parlors are known for dealing with bizarre and possibly insane requests.
Guy Pearce does a very good job as Leonard; he captures both the constant bewilderment that Leonard has to be in when he can’t remember his situation for more than about 20 minutes, and the intense determination that Leonard needs in order to be able to pursue his quest despite his condition. He has allies, but he doesn’t know why, and without being able to truly know them, he doesn’t know how far he can trust them. Carrie-Anne Moss plays a sympathetic bartender who agrees to help him, and as the story unfolds the audience gets to see Moss display a range of emotion as the situation changes. The ubiquitous Joe Pantoliano plays a somewhat weaselly man named Teddy, who acts like an old friend of Leonard’s, even though Leonard has no recollection of him and Teddy has to reintroduce himself every time they meet. Pantoliano is always great when playing a weasel, of course, and this is no exception. In fact, it’s one of his better roles. The equally ubiquitous Stephen Tobolowsky has a supporting role as a character who serves as a mental aid to Leonard; before his accident, while serving as an insurance investigator, Leonard encountered Tobolowsky’s character who suffered from the same problem. Remembering the story of Sammy Jankis allows Leonard to develop his methods of coping with his situation. Tobolowsky, for his part, gives an exceptional performance, appearing well and truly lost in these flashback scenes.
The story is told in anachronic order, with some quiet scenes in black and white and moving forward, while the major scenes are in color and are shown in reverse sequence. Normally I detest anachronic order; it’s almost always a gimmick that is used poorly and to little benefit. Here, however, it works terrifically. It puts the audience in Leonard’s shoes, as each scene essentially explains the scene before, creating a twist with each one that paints the previous one in an entirely different light. Thus the whole movie becomes a puzzle for the audience to solve even as Leonard solves his own puzzle. This is not a movie one can lazily sit through while half-asleep and still get the full effect. From what I’ve read, the DVD has a hidden Easter egg which allows one to view the movie in its true chronological order; I may have to track it down and see it that way sometime, just to see how well the movie holds up when played as a normal film. It would be a simpler movie, of course, but it might still be enjoyable.
Memories, pressed between the pages of my mind…
Memories, slipping out so hard to find…
Unlike a lot of films in which the hero has amnesia, in Memento it’s not merely a starting point for the lead character. Leonard’s inability to form new memories actively contributes to the plot, as he finds himself in the middle of situations with no idea how he got there. This is usually used to heighten the drama, but is also used in a couple of places for a bit of dark comedy (the effect it has on a chase scene is hilarious). And the motivations of other characters comes into play and muddies the waters just enough to make Memento an interesting mystery to a new viewer. It really is a great film, very enjoyable, and even knowing the story, I can see how it would be a worthwhile film to watch a second time.
One word of warning to those who, like me until now, have managed to go this long without seeing the film. While it’s possible to review the film without spoiling it, it may prove difficult to discuss the film without spoiling it. So you may want to be cautious about reading the comments.