(Poster from Imp Awards)
Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They're just an interpretation, they're not a record, and they're irrelevant if you have the facts ... I've told you this before, haven't I?
Christopher Nolan blazed onto the scene back in 2000 with his unconventional, bravura thriller. 'Memento' mesmerized with its atypical structure and unique premise. Seven years on, I checked it out again to see if it could stand on its own two feet now that the hype has faded. My initial reaction to the film had been positive, but I wasn't blown away. I found it to be a much better experience the second time round.
Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) was an insurance fraud investigator. His wife was raped and killed during a break in to his house, and he himself was assaulted and left with brain damage. He is now unable to create new memories, and can only remember things up to the time he was assaulted. His short term memory works for brief stretches of time, but fades and 'resets', often leaving him wondering where he is and what he's doing. Despite this seemingly debilitating condition, Leonard has vowed to avenge his wife's death and is conducting an investigation to track down the killer (the police caught a suspect, but Leonard believes there were two people involved). He does this by tattooing essential facts onto his body to remind himself of what he is doing, and making brief notes and taking photographs of pertinent people and places. The notion sounds far fetched, and in some ways it doesn't hold together, but the way it's presented makes it easy to suspend disbelief. The course of Leonard's investigation leads him to interact with a man named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and a woman named Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), who may or may not be helping him.
The real trick behind Memento is that it presents the story in much the same way that Leonard experiences it. It starts at the end and works backwards in a series of segments, where each segment ends at the beginning of the segment shown previously. Basically, we see a segment of the story with no idea how Leonard got there or why, or even what he's doing, and we see that segment play out. The next segment we see, which chronologically takes place earlier, explains what Leonard was doing in the preceding segment. At the start of each segment, we are in the dark, same as Leonard. A pretty clever narrative device, but it wouldn't be worth much if the story itself wasn't interesting, and fortunately it is. It's relatively basic (the way it's presented makes it appear complex) but it does have a fair few twists and turns, including a fairly big twist at the end that puts preceding (chronologically subsequent) events in context and solves the mystery quite effectively . In addition to the primary storyline, the film intercuts with scenes of Leonard talking on the phone with an unnamed person and explaining an insurance case he investigated involving a man named Sammy Jenkis (Stephen Tobolowsky) who supposedly had the same condition Leonard now has; these segments give additional insights into Leonard's character and condition, as well adding to the plot.
Given the narrative structure, the writing had to be very precise with its details and the information it conveyed, and it is successful in this regard. The stylized and verbose script has its fair share of wry humour as well, but there is a hopelessness to Leonard's predicament that feels overpowering at times - such is the nature of the story. The characters are sketchy by design and present themselves to Leonard in different ways, often to manipulate him. One of the overriding themes of the film is the nature of knowing and how it relates to memory and facts, and how context, subjectivity, deception, and even self-deception can alter one's perception of the world. Despite being driven almost single mindedly, Leonard makes for a sympathetic hero who at times bungles from one situation to the next; while his systematic approach to overcoming his disability is impressive and quite effective, one can't help but feel for him when he gets in over his head and doesn't even know it.
Guy Pearce deserves some of the credit for that; despite wearing a tough guy face for much of the movie, he has an appropriate air of helplessness about him, and there are brief poignant moments where he reminisces about his past and his dead wife. His narration is also excellent and serves to bind the film together. Carrie-Anne Moss is pretty good as the coldly manipulative and strangely seductive woman who appears to be (and may be?) helping Leonard. Joe Pantoliano is perfectly cast as the weaselly Teddy, who may be genuine but hardly ever seems sincere or trustworthy.
Writer / director Nolan is the real star; apart from the tightly plotted script, he crafts a tense, suspenseful, and exciting film that keeps you alert and guessing as events unfold. It's visually slick and briskly paced, and looks more expensive than its mere $5 million budget would have you believe. There is a sense of emotional detachment to the film even when it is meant to be affecting, which I can only attribute to a directorial quirk of Nolan's, as it's a trait I've noticed in all of his films. I'm satisfied with his style (including the fact that even his big budget films feel unassuming and small), but it does have its critics. The final aspect of the film that deserves a mention is the mournful low key score that has a minimal but quite effective presence.
'Memento' is a great film, one of those that, ironically, you will remember for quite a while. It embodies excellent filmmaking that brings to life an original and quite unconventional story. Nolan has gone on to make some pretty good films following this, but I don't think any of them are as well put together and impactful as this one.