*Note: Memento is replacing A Scanner Darkly as the final film in the 'Homemade Summer Movie Marathon.' I figured that with a hugely successful Christopher Nolan film released this summer, it would be more interesting to look some of the director's previous work. On with the review.
In recent years writer director Christopher Nolan has been busy impressing mainstream audiences with fantastical tent-pole release the likes of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Inception, but it was not so long ago that the Englishman made a name for himself in the Hollywood scene with smaller, more intimate and independent minded projects. The first to truly put him on the proverbial map was Memento, a murder mystery tale that took audiences on for a ride inside the mind of a man desperately searching for his wife’s killer but who has suffered from a particular form of amnesia which deprives him of the ability to form any new memories.
The film opens with Leonard (Guy Pierce) starring intently at the photograph of a man he has just shot in the head. We notice that with every wave of the picture, the image morphs from crystal clear to paler shades and eventually to white. Of course, everyone knows that Polaroid pictures development in the opposite manner, that is, from a pure shade of white to the moment in time that was capture on camera. It quickly becomes evident that the scene is unfolding in reverse order. This is but a small taste of things to come as director Nolan, who was inspired by a short story written by his brother, structures the entire narrative in reverse chronological order. Every scene which reveals a little more of what happen earlier is intercut with black and white sequences of Leonard discussing with someone over the phone in a motel room about memory and the story of a man, Sammy Jenkis (Steven Tobolowsky) who suffered from the same case of amnesia as himself. Along the way the film presents two vastly different characters, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and a bar made named Nathalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) who at first seems to want to assist Leonard in his quest for vengeance, but appearances can always be so deceiving...and Leonard is such an easy target to take of advantage of, what with his ‘condition’ as he calls it.
Memento represents a lot of what films should be, and especially film noir. The mood, plot, cinematography and character interactions all find their inspiration in classic film noir. There is the beaten up protagonist who will do whatever it takes to quench his thirst for personal justice, the attractive woman who displays, on the surface at least, a desire to help him but who may be guided by her own selfish motives, a story which is infested with sadness and despair, and some exquisitely moody lighting choices. Like in the great film noir’s, there is no genuine hero to the piece. Someone has been wronged and they are hunting down the perpetrators, nothing more. Guy Pierce’s strength is in how he succeeds in giving his character a sense of humanity. For much of the movie he does earn the viewer’s sympathy, whether through his recollections of his deceased wife (as trustworthy as they can be), the gutsiness with which he ventures into some seedy characters of the city, and the even the obsession that drives him, to the point that he has ‘facts of the case’ tattooed all over his body just so that he can remember who is he looking for and how. Leonard’s is a quest for blood, but through the actor’s performance his journey elicits a form of sympathy from the viewer.
The real coup de grace of Memento is in how Nolan weaves his plot. Rather than follow the usual path of the central character discovering tips and clues to the puzzle as the story evolves, the director takes an unorthodox decision in revealing each scene of Leonard investigating in the opposite order in which they happen. The film thusly begins with him looking over a man he has just shot in the head, the next scene explains how the murder came to be, the scene after that is what occurred before Leonard decided he had to kill his victim, so on and so forth. What might come across as ‘gimmicky’ is in actuality one of the cleverest and effective efforts by a film in having the viewer really step into the shoes of a protagonist. Movies with characters who have amnesia have been done many times already, as have movies for which the story is told in non linear fashion, but the fusion of the two in Memento make a dangerously delicious cocktail. With everything told in the reverse order, it is understood that Christopher Nolan is deliberately withholding information from the audience, not in the traditional sense of a murder mystery in which clues must be discovered and put together one by one. No, whatever events which have led up to a given scene one is watching have already occurred within the time frame of the movie. Leonard has already lived through whatever led him his heinous murder in the opening scene within the time frame of Memento’s plot. Director Nolan simply isn’t letting us see what those previous events were until later (or earlier, kind of). The reason this works so well has everything to do with poor Leonard ‘condition.’ If he cannot create new memories, and thus cannot recollect what has occurred only minutes earlier, than whatever did happen is no longer information in his memory bank. By that extension, there is no pivotal reason why the audience should be privy to that same information either. If we are to follow Leonard around and understand what he is going through, the direction taken by the filmmakers for Memento is arguably the best one possible. By the time the viewer discovers every new reveal, twist and turn, we my hope that things could have turned out differently, but that is not a possibility because has already forgotten them, and therefore for us, the viewers, to be more knowledgeable than Leonard would have defeated the purpose of the experience of following this chap around town. His mind is in such poor shape that with every ‘present’ situation, the present has already become too late because we know he will forget some critical information. He may be taking down notes on pictures and have some tattooed reminders on his skin, but he is still prone to being taken advantage of.
This brings upon a mood of fatalism to the picture, but one that fits in perfectly with the story. Memento is not a pleasant picture to experience, but nor should it be. It is concerned with a character who is doomed to repeating the same mistakes over and over again. In fact, when one character attempts to reason with him with divulging critical information about his past, Leonard shuns him because it doesn’t correspond to what he himself remembers. People and events of his past are garbled together which may have corrupted Leonard’s actions and mission with a toxicity that one couldn’t have predicted in the earlier stages of the movie. Does he even believe he is a good person? Has he ever been a good person? Were he to have the full capacities of his memories, would he behave in a more honourable manner? Snippets from his past hint that this may not be the case, but then again, he doesn’t seem to remember things very well, so... All this make Leonard a fascinating character to evaluate and study. Top it off with a compelling performance from actor Guy Pierce and you have yourself a film for which it is difficult to take one’s eyes away from. It is impossible to write an in-depth and full analysis of Memento all the while withholding some of the more important revelations, but suffice to say that Nolan delivers the good in spades. I could go on about the few things that didn’t not quite work for me (such as Leonard’s retelling of the Sammy Jenkis story, which goes on for a little too long in my opinion and doesn’t earn the payoff I believe the film wants it to have), but as film noir pot boiler, I can’t recommend the film highly enough.