Memento

Christopher Nolan’s first major picture (after 1998’s Following, which is interesting but a tad too confusing, and really for completists only) is at first glance nothing but a gimmick, using a reverse-narrative to tell the detective noir of Guy Pearce’s Leonard Shelby as he hunts for the man who raped and killed his wife whilst suffering with a rare condition that prevents him from making new memories. However it turns out that telling the story backwards, scene by scene and with an expositionary telephone conversation spliced in between, is the only way to give the story justice.
Famously, there is an easter egg on the Memento DVD that plays the film in chronological order, and I’ve discovered that in that orientation the film just doesn’t work. It’s not just because the last few seconds of every scene are replayed again moments later at the start of the next one (surely that wouldn’t have taken much to edit out?) but it’s also because the film is completely lacking in tension or pacing when that way round. Which just goes to show that Nolan was able to use a plot technique to it’s fullest advantage, which in the hands of a lesser director could have proved disastrous.
Pearce is excellent in an unforgiving role, especially given that Leonard has no character arc longer than a scene. He’s always been a brilliant actor, and often hides his Brad Pitt-esque looks behind obscuring facial furniture or heavy make-up – see Ed Exley’s glasses in L.A. Confidential, or large amounts of Play-doh in Prometheus – and here is no exception, with Shelby’s body plastered with tattoos and a shock of peroxide blonde hair to distract from those razor-sharp cheekbones. Pearce is ably supported by Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano as Natalie and Teddy, people who may or may not be out to help Leonard on his quest.We discover elements of the story as Leonard does, and the true meaning of almost every scene is altered by the one that immediately precedes/follows it. Surprisingly, a scene can hold just as many surprises, and just as much tension, if you know how it ends but not how it begins. You can’t help but feel sorry for Leonard, in a situation that would drive most of us insane – as long as we could remember the insanity long enough – and his life would be hard enough without everyone screwing with him. Even the clerk at his motel (Batman Begins‘ Mark Boone Junior) charges him for two different rooms, and doesn’t even hide it from Leonard, as there’s no chance he’ll remember.

There’s more comedic moments than you might remember, and some darkly so, for example the conversation where Leonard reveals to Natalie that the last thing he remembers is his wife. She says that’s sweet, before Leonard concludes “…dying.” I probably shouldn’t have, but this got a start of laughter from me.

I remember that my first viewing of this movie was ruined when I borrowed it from a housemate some years ago. He basically told me the ending, and that the film was crap, but I watched it anyway and remained intrigued and fascinated by how the plot would tie together – which it does nicely. Rest assured I never took that housemates movie advice again.

If Stephen Tobolowsky is in a film, then I’m legally obliged to mention him in a review, and here he crops up in grainy, black and white flashback as Sammy Jankis, a case Leonard looked into as an insurance claims investigator before his memory loss. Jankis suffered from a similar condition as Leonard, and Tobolowsky’s wonderfully big blank face is perfect for the look of someone not recognising anything new in the world around him, and his bursts of anger at annoyance – at an elctro-shock test and not understanding TV shows – is also great.

The story, written by Christopher Nolan’s brother Jonathan, is well thought out and takes into account the minutiae of Leonard’s predicament. Such a high concept (though scientifically possible) film could have left many annoyances at skipped over details, loose plot strands or inconsistencies, but by the end/beginning no such problems are left.

Choose film 9/10

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8 thoughts on “Memento

  1. Love it. Love this film, love this write up, love the fascination with El Tobolowsky. This is my husband's favorite movie, and we have endlessly discussed its intricacies and inherent awesomeness. You're absolutely right – it's not just a "gimmick" film. There's so much more there than just "hey, it's in reverse."The scene where Carrie-Anne Moss systematically removes all the pens from the room then tells him exactly how she's going to screw him over is one of the most frustrating scenes in the film. It makes me so angry, and there's nothing Leonard can do about it. He's so helpless.

  2. That's possibly my favourite scene in the film, although the whole thing is just brilliantly written and worked out. Thanks for the compliment, and thanks for reading!

  3. My personal choice is probably The Prestige, then Inception, then Memento, then Dark Knight. Although those four could all switch places quite easily depending on the day, it's a close-run race.

  4. Pingback: Top 10… Active Directors | Life Vs Film

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