Memento is unlike any other film that I have seen in my lifetime. Much of the credit belongs to writer director Christopher Nolan who based his film on his brother Jonathan Nolan’s short story Memento Mori. Granted, I have not seen the work in which this film is based on so I cannot comment on the accuracy of the adaptation but from viewing Memento, I can say with absolute certainty that the film needs more than 1 viewing to become fully absorbed by it. I have seen the film twice – the first time not fully understanding what was happening due to the non-linear structure in which Nolan tells this tale. The second viewing – more attention was given to how the plot unfolded backward to forward, picking up more on the clues and hints of the story told by the narrator.
Told backward, the story starts with a polaroid being shaken but not in a way to make the picture clearer but blurry which foreshadows how each person may view the material presented. Just like the main character Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) Everything that happens from that moment is surrounded in a complete fog. Leonard suffers from short term memory loss caused from a break in and sexual assault and murder of his wife Catherine (Jorja Fox). That’s where the memory stops for Leonard. Everything past that horrific event must be documented by way of photographs, tattoos, and maps.
Every event is disorientating to the mind and how it works and thus thinks in solving a crime with no way of knowing who to trust. Pearce’s performance emotes that feeling perfectly as we (the viewer) feel the confusion of attempting to work out who killed his wife. That’s the goal of the film – staying in the same mental state as Leonard while not fully grasping what happened to him. And if he does in fact know he suffers from short term memory loss, how does he know? How is Leonard able to distinguish the last event he remembers as the murder of his wife? There is no diagnosis to his condition, were just made to accept the fact.
At some point, accepting the fact that Nolan’s intent and purpose for telling the narrative the way its structured is to confuse and leave the viewer no smarter nor have a deeper understanding of the film no matter how many times its viewed and paid close attention to. There may be a few details picked up in a second or third viewing that were missed previously, but the plot stays the same. I can guarantee that I have no idea who Leonard is talking to on the phone in the brief breaks the film takes that also goes from full color to black and white. Is it Teddy or John G (Joe Pantoliano)? Or someone else we don’t meet?
But with the non-linear structure, the film works with how its explained. Each moment that a piece of the puzzle is given, a larger picture can be seen but Nolan leaves the entirety of his script up to interpretation, meaning that there is no right or wrong way of piecing these events together since the mind that’s retelling the events is fractured and split apart.
Aiding Leonard (he hates when people call him Lenny) is Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) who takes advantage of Leonard’s memory herself. How she fits in to the grand scheme of things adds to the mystery of this revenge thriller where Leonard has facts about the murderer tattooed on his body (some self-tattoos and others done by a professional). Every character from Dodd (Callum Keith Rennie) to Burt (Mark Boone Junior) is meant to be a distraction to Lenny. There is no one selfless character in Nolan’s story with Teddy acting as the main suspect in Leonard’s minds based on the facts that he believes are true.
Memento is the type of film that will burrow into the depths of your brain and make its home in your subconscious. Technically and expertly structured from start to finish, skillfully switching tone from color to black and white, Nolan crafts a story that will never be looked at the same way by every single person. Crafted with precision and shot to show how gentle the mind is, Memento is brilliant. It doesn’t need to be fully understood to see the beauty behind the film. Acted well, Pearce gives a performance that’s believable to the “disability” portrayed on screen in which Pearce commands the spotlight with a subtly and calmness while Leonard’s world is self-destructing around him. Or a world that already destructed and we’re just along for the ride to see how messed up Leonard’s mind is from the attack.
Written By: Christopher Nolan
Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Music By: David Julyan
Cinematography: Wally Pfister
Starring: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Stephen Tobolowsky
Release Date: March 16, 2000
Running Time: 1 Hour 53 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%
My Score: 4.5 out of 5
Based On: Memento Mori by Jonathan Nolan