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Non-Review Review: Memento

I figured, what with Inception coming out and all, it was the perfect time in introduce my better half to the rather impressive (and amazingly consistent – indeed, only one of his films did not make my “top 50 films of the decade”) director Christopher Nolan. I discover that she had yet to see Memento, Nolan’s first major American release. We immediately decided to rectify the situation.

Picture perfect...

Memento is essential a modern noir film, revolving around Leonard. Leonard is a man without a short-term memory. He still remembers his name and his wife, but he can’t form new memories. Which means that he must make careful notes in order to keep things straight – the essential details he tattoos on his body. Without long term memory, it’s easy to lose context – he is “no good on the phone” because he frequently forgets how the conservation started or even who he is talking to. Indeed, the movie suggests, “context is everything”, but Leonard is – more often than not – blissfully unaware of that. The best he can do is “fake it”, to “seem less like a freak”.

The movie’s gimmick has become one of legend, and deservedly so. It’s genuinely ingenious. To allow the audience to experience the movie similar to Leonard – without memory of what came before and without necessary context – the film works backwards. You see a scene, and then you see the scene before that. So you go into each moment blind and confused. There’s a wonderful moment when we join Leonard in the middle of a chase – who is chasing who? “Oh, I’m chasing this guy,” Leonard deduces. He opponent is confused when Leonard starts running towards him, and fires a few shots. “No,” Leonard corrects himself, “he’s chasing me.”

The story follows Leonard in his quest to track down he’s wife’s killer (and the man who took his memory), as he’s helped and hindered by two figures. There’s Teddy, a moustached fast-talker who seems to spend the movie absolutely intent on getting his hands on Leonard’s snazzy car. And there’s Natalie, a mysterious barmaid who seems to want to help Leonard motivated by the loss of her own loved one. Nolan smartly positions the film as a modern noir – indeed, the idea of a man with no memory seems perfectly at home in a genre built on the idea that we aren’t smart enough to learn from our own mistakes. When asked about a guy with no memory passing through her seedy dive bar, Natalie observes that there are a lot of guys who pass through like that. Indeed, Leonard is identical to any number of noir protagonists, save for the fact that he can’t remember, rather than won’t.

The movie is very smartly constructed. There’s a genuine pathos to Leonard, cemented perfectly through Guy Pierce’s wonderful understated performance. Indeed, it’s hard to believe his career never skyrocketed the way that it should – between this and L.A. Confidential, he established himself as a wonderful modern noir leading man, yet somehow ended up as the villian in Disney’s Bedtime Stories. Nolan manages to take the movie’s gimmick – the movie unspooling in reverse – and make it, as seems to be his true gift as a director, wonderfully open and accessible to the audience. Even this early in his career, Nolan was demonstrating the capacity to offer high concepts in a way that doesn’t alienate mainstream audiences.

And yet, that accessibility does not come at a cost. There are relatively few shortcuts taken and Nolan deals with the situation effectively. Indeed, the film – so rare for a film centred around a narrative gimmick – holds together when you watch it again. It would be easy for the film to collapse like a house of cards once the audience figures out where it’s going, but instead the film becomes fascinating in an entirely different way. You notice things, and different objects within the story become the centre of your attention. The fact that the film has a tremendous emotional heart to it, also helps – no matter how many times you see the film – Leonard still remains a tragic figure.

The cast is great. I’ve already mentioned Guy Pierce, but Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss offer wonderful supporting characters who may or may not be using Leonard’s condition to their own twisted ends. There are also small supporting turns for recognisable faces like Callum Kieth Rennie, Jorja Fox and Stepehn Tobolowski.

Memento is a modern classic, a perfectly constructed noir film built around a clever gimmick that holds up to rewatching. Does it spoil the film to point out it has a brilliant ending? I don’t care, it does. It’s a triumph of small-scale film making, and a wonderful introduction to Nolan for mainstream audiences.

6 Responses

  1. Memento was a perfect introduction for mainstream audiences to Nolan and his brother – they just know how to construct a great story through genius narrative construction and a heavy dose of originality.

    • Yep. I’ve argued before and I’ll argue again that Nolan’s true gift is to make high concepts like no memory and dreaming accessible to the widest possible audience, without patronising or dumbing down.

  2. Good review, man. I still think this is the best thing Nolan’s ever done and it barely edges out The Diving Bell and the Butterfly for best movie of the past decade. Show me a better example of mindblowingly original storytelling over the past ten years, I dare anyone. Totally transcends being a gimmick and has kept me coming back to it time and time again since the day I was lucky enough to be introduced to it. DAMN I love this movie!

    • Thanks Aidan. Great little film.

      Though I’m in the minority of people who rank The Prestige as the best of Nolan’s work.

  3. I can’t muster up the same enthusiasm for Memento like so many. In many ways it’s technically masterful, but I can’t help thinking of another “reverse” story (incidentally also from 2001) a musical called “The Last Five Years” that looks at a marriage with one half occurring from the end to the beginning and the other occurring from beginning to end. When the final sog play I can say there’s a point to the entire “gimmick” (which is what it is).

    With Memento, though it’s all meticulously created my problem is that unlike you I don’t see any beating heart underneath it and though it’s so very pedantic of me, I can’t help believing that in chronological order the film would lose its punch. I don’t find it moving the second time around.

    And I also can’t help wondering how Leonard knows he has amnesia (and why he isn’t in a hospital).

    • I think those last two are willing suspension of disbelief (or unwilling). I can’t imagine demonstrating that Leonard can’t function in society, and it would be fairly easy for him to argue his way out of a hospital if he really wanted to. As for knowing he has amnesia, I think it’s implied that he can carry certain bits with him. For example, the ending reveals that he shouldn’t remember “Sammy Jenkins” either as a cautionary tale or… whatever he’s meant to be. So he carries certain stuff with him, he just chooses to ignore other aspects.

      I don’t know.

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