NOTE: This review was written for the Cinema Parrot Disco‘s IMDB Top 250 Challenge which is working its way through the top rated movies on IMDB. The review was originally posted on the Cinema Parrot Disco site on February 3rd. Head over there to read other guest reviews and join the challenge.
There’s an old thinking in American college football that a coach’s second or third year with a program will be their breakout year. In the first year the coach learns how to be a head coach and gets the major kinks out of their system. Many years into the position they can get bogged down by politics, conflicting lessons learned over overt time and often stuttering momentum that sends recruits to other programs. But in those early years the savvy and ambition of a young coach shines through without the growing pains of a newcomer or struggles of embattled veterans. A similar argument could be made in film directing. Directors learn the ropes with that first feature-length film credit and discover their style before putting it to full use in their breakout second film. Tarantino with Pulp Fiction, Aranofsky with Requiem for a Dream and Christopher Nolan with Memento all fit this pattern with sophomore films that skyrocketed them to fame. With Memento, Nolan exercises the cinematic style and themes of identity and morality used in his debut film Following as well as the complicated storylines with converging timelines seen in later films like The Prestige, Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy.
Memento stars Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential) as Leonard Shelby, a man who suffers from retrograde amnesia which leaves him unable to store new memories. His condition is the result of a head injury sustained while trying to save his wife from two attackers during a home assault. Leonard’s last memory is that of his wife dying next to him and the movie picks up in the middle of his quest for vengeance. With his amnesia, Leonard lives life in small vignettes, constantly forgetting recent events leaving him confused and easily manipulated. To compensate for this problem, inconvenient to anyone but especially to someone devoted to a life of vengeful investigation, he writes notes to himself and tattoos important details on his body. Watching Leonard employ his system for memory construction plays out somewhat like a superhero origin story as we watch a character devise creative ways to use a certain power, or in this case compensate for a certain loss.
Leonard’s story is presented to us non-chronologically and the film hints at Nolan’s later penchant for overlapping and converging plotlines. Unlike most films with non-sequential or vignette-based timelines, Memento’s story is not a random shuffling of episodes but a reverse chronology, with each scene occurring prior to the last. While this reverse timeline moves backwards, a separate timeline, shot in black-and-white, proceeds forward and meets the other timeline at the end of the film to form a continuous story. But Memento‘s nonsequentiality is different from similar films not only in its sequence but in its relevance to the film. Most films with nonchronologic timelines are nonchronologic for artistic reasons and are structured in a way that creates a more compelling story. I’ve used Pulp Fiction before as an example of a movie that presents its episodes in a specific sequence to create tension, citing the scene when John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson enter the diner we already know Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer plan to rob. Knowing Roth and Plummer are present when the two gangsters enter for breakfast builds tension in a way that a straightforward chronological sequence might not. But Memento‘s presentation is an artifact of a mechanism within the film itself and not just Nolan’s artistic choice (although Nolan does craft the story in a way that makes this sequence feel organic). We are viewing the confusing world generated by Leonard’s condition.
The plot’s structure is harbinger of Nolan’s later style. Like Following and later films, Memento incorporates elements of film noir to create a dark atmosphere in which its characters live. Memento is often included on lists of the top neo-noirs produced in the last twenty years and often beyond. The film makes use of many stylistic elements of noir including voice-overs by Leonard, countless reflections which show off Leonard’s tattoos (which are often written right-to-left) and other cinematographic techniques. But the story is also noir to the core. Leonard devotes his life to revenge and solving a mystery forgotten by the law. Along the way he encounters a femme fetale in Carrie Anne Moss as well as a double crossing clerk who we could imagine as a 1940’s bartender. Film noir plots often are described as fatalistic with outcomes the characters are helpless to alter. By the film’s end Memento‘s dark inevitability is apparent and we are left questioning the morality of everyone in the film, including our hero. Nolan would continue to use noir elements frequently in his career and doesn’t abandon the genre after crossing over into the land of massive Hollywood blockbusters. And while we eagerly await his next film Interstellar, it’s safe to say the momentum Nolan built in his second film won’t sputter anytime soon.
Internet, if you’ll allow me to confess my true feelings I will say that while I appreciate Memento and all of the skill Nolan demonstrates in the film, I am not the movie’s biggest fan. I can’t quite place the reason. The timeline is fascinating, the storyline is compelling, the acting is superb and it is commonly cited as one of the best examples of neo-noir which is arguably my favorite genre. Everyone has a movie or two that they know they should love. Movies that satisfy every individual category in your movie-watching mind but don’t quite satisfy you overall. For me, Memento is “that” movie. I suspect the main reason is that by the time I actually got my hands on the movie I resented how much I was supposed to “love” it. Another serious possibility (and I’m only half-kidding) is that I may have been sick when I first saw the movie and now associate the movie with feeling ill. I remember the day that Michael Jackson died I was overcoming a bad bout of food poisoning and dealing with all of its… let’s just say symptoms. The likely culinary culprit was a bad fried-ham-and-cheese sandwich (before you question American diets I need to say that I ate the sandwich while living in Spain). I spent all day watching videos of Michael Jackson’s songs and interviews from his friends and family (between frequent trips to the bathroom). Now whenever I see ham and cheese I start to hear “Beat It” in my head and am suddenly overcome with the need to vomit. I’m praying no one plays “Billie Jean” when I’m at work. I’m not sure I could make it to the bathroom fast enough.
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