When “Memento” first started to hit the festival circuit, it caught a lot of people’s attention. “That movie that plays backwards.” From a marketing perspective, it was a smart decision, a guarantee that anybody who saw the movie would remember it. (Ironically.) It’s no surprise that the film ended up being Nolan’s calling card, making him a hot new director to watch out for. However, “Memento” isn’t just a movie with a gimmick. It’s a legitimately good film.
A polarizing one though. Critics tended to react to the film, generally, in two ways. The first group, Roger Ebert among them, dismissed the movie as gimmicky. That it’s unusual narrative device was nothing but a way to catch people’s attention. The second group, where I include myself, realize what’s so interesting and exciting about the film and its primary mechanism.
“Memento” is the story of a man with no memory. Leonard Shelby can’t remember what happened ten minutes ago. By presenting the story in reverse chronological order, Christopher Nolan puts the audience in the same position as the character. We, too, are completely unaware of the immediately preceding events. Nolan is sometimes, and not always without good reason, considered a very cold director, someone more interested in writing tricky narratives then warm, lovable characters. By telling this story in the way that he did, it was actually the best thing he could do for Leonard Shelby. The viewer immediately understands his condition and relates with him. It makes a captivating film even more so.
The film certainly does show off the director’s strength for constructing complicated screenplays. If I had to say Nolan has one strength over anything else, it’s his mastery of screenplay construction. Honestly, the dude is a better writer then a director, I think. Because “Memento” has to be one of the best constructed screenplays ever written. Writing a normal screenplay and making sure everything flows and makes sense is super hard. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to write a script like this. You can presume he wrote it in chronological order first and then shifted it around. That was probably followed by another rewrite where he went through and made the time-shift really work, adding all the irony and dramatic reversals that makes the film such a rewarding rewatching experience. And probably another draft or two to make sure it all made sense. That would be my guess anyway. Maybe it came into his head fully formed. The point is it would have been really easy to screw up “Memento.” In an alternate timeline, the film is completely incomprehensive. It’s still not an easy film to follow. Your full attention is required, you have to be paying close attention. That’s not a bad thing, of course, it’s just not a film you can put on in the background. As a whole, it all makes sense.
Except when it doesn’t, of course. There are a couple of story flubs here that, generally, you just have to overlook. The amount of time Leonard’s short-term memory lasts varies in accordance to the story’s whims. Some times he only gets a minute, some times he gets as much as twenty. The film actually has two time lines running concurrently. The main narrative is in reverse. The second, in black and white, are in forward, and mostly gives up the Sammy Jankis back story. In the black and white narrative, Leonard is on the phone for an hour and never seems to loose track of what he’s doing. It’s the most dubious leap in the film and the only one that truly distracts. (Of course, on first view, you’re so busy keeping track of the story that you hardly notice it.) Moreover, there are just the logical truths you have to suspend. Someone like Leonard Shelby would never be able to function in real life. How can he drive? How does he ever get anywhere? How can someone who has to be reminded to shave every day manage to get anything done, much less complicated crime capers? This is a movie so naturally the boring real life waiting gets cut out. In a story where time is so important however, loosing those moments does cause some confusion. You can overlook those things without too much difficulty, assuming you aren’t a total ‘sperg like me. You could also possibly accuse the film of spinning its wheels, throwing in subplots just to complicate things and waste time until the killer final reveal. You could but it would be a dick move.
The topsy-turvy script construction isn’t the only Nolan trademark that shows up here. Let’s take a second to examine the director’s use of female characters. Wives, or the major love interest, are always dead, or will be soon. Every other woman is a duplicitous femme fatale, only looking to lie and manipulate the male protagonist, foolish enough to fall for their feminine wiles. You saw that in “Following” and it appears here as well. Make of this what you will but it’s undeniably a reoccurring quirk in the guy’s work. Maybe Chris just watched too many film noirs as a teenager.
The movie is an astonishingly effective thriller. The story structure leads to that important uncertainty as well. While a second viewing builds so much on blocks laid down by the first watch, you do loose that suspense. Other emotions are brought up fantastically. There’s a surprising amount of humor here, just little funny moments. Like Leonard kicking open the motel room door of some random guy or the classic “I’m chasing this guy… No, he’s chasing me” moment. Anger comes up when you realize just how perfectly Leonard, a guy you’ve come to like, is being manipulated by the people in his life. In particular, a scene involving Carrie Anne-Moss raises as much bile in the viewer as it does in the protagonist. Finally, the Sammy subplot manages to be absolutely heart-breaking. Which sets you up for the film’s ending. Or maybe it’s the beginning.
The cast is uniformly strong, packed full of strong character actors doing their thing. Guy Pierce, despite the temptation to think of him as a typically handsome leading man, really does have the chops of a subtler actor. This was a hard part to play, for sure, and Pierce manages to suggest multiple layers with only his facial expressions or a simple line reading. Joey Pantelino hardly expands pass his typical role, but it is a good performance from him. Especially when you realize that, what might seem like an important moment for us, is just him saying something to a guy who won’t remember anything. Carrie Anne-Moss manages to make you buy her manipulations just as convincingly as the characters do. The nervous, quivering, minimalist score is used sparingly but does ramp up the tension when it shows up. And I applaud the use of Bowie’s “Something in the Air,” one of the artist’s most haunting songs, over the end credits. Lyrically, it stands apart from the film but on a tonal level it functions perfectly.
“Memento” has quickly become a classic and essential film-nerd viewing. Say what you will about the rest of Nolan’s career, and I will, but he certainly hit this one out of the park. How many films have a more perfect last line? “Where was I?” [Grade: A]