Release Date: May 25th, 2001 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Christopher Nolan Actors: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Russ Fega, Jorja Fox, Stephen Tobolowsky, Kimberly Campbell
any movies like to toy with timelines, stirring up chronology or switching the order of events. Like few films before it, however, “Memento” truly turns the narrative editing into a specifically artistic endeavor, beginning not just at the end, but also playing out, scene by scene, in reverse. To complicate matters further, two storylines exist: the first is in color, moving backwards by scene (initially completely in reverse to show the only disconnected final shot); the second is in black-and-white and unfolds in order. By the conclusion, the two stories will meet, with the black-and-white turning to color. These baffling interchanges are also marked by a few key flashbacks and visions. As director Christopher Nolan’s second feature, “Memento” garnered Academy Award nominations for Editing and Screenplay, though it was relatively obscure upon its original release. Nolan’s success with subsequent films (particularly the Dark Knight trilogy) would cause audiences to revisit this early masterpiece of storytelling and style.
Leonard (Guy Pearce) has a rare brain damage condition caused by a blow to the head. He narrates, in a neo-noirish fashion, describing the symptoms and the cause: it’s not amnesia, but it’s similar; he remembers who he is, and everything leading up to the attack on his wife (when he received the injury trying to defend her), but nothing beyond that. To keep his life manageable, he has strict discipline, habits, and routines, and takes plenty of notes and photographs. He also has tattoos inked across his body, detailing the facts of the man who raped and murdered his wife.
His sole purpose in life now is revenge; but even if he gets it, he won’t remember the satisfaction for long. He has a system to cope, unlike Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), a man with a similar condition. Leonard previously worked as an insurance investigator, responsible for ousting frauds, and Sammy was his toughest challenge. After a car accident, Sammy similarly couldn’t form new memories, but Leonard was suspicious of the man’s behaviors. Through his research, he discovered that Sammy should be prone to conditioning – to learn by instinct – but he’s unable to prove it.
Leonard’s narration sets up the story of his predicament, and it takes place over the phone, with someone unknown (this is the black-and-white portion of the story). Meanwhile (in color), he searches for his wife’s killer, collecting clues with the help of Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), a woman who should be sympathetic, and Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), a so-called friend who keeps showing up at convenient times. Leonard knows from time to time that various acquaintances are using him for their own means, but he has difficulty straightening out the facts.
Many of the events are complete surprises, mysteries that both the audience and the characters must work at spontaneously to solve. Several sequences start with sudden action, like a chase, that Leonard must talk the viewer through to uncover why he’s in such a predicament. Every role possesses ulterior motives, while Nolan also seems intent to add deceptive imagery and visual cues. Just as memories can be distorted, influenced, and planted, he manipulates the audience, ensuring that predicting the next moment is completely impossible.
“Memento” is a first-rate thriller that uses a mind-bogglingly unique storytelling device and a wickedly clever murder-mystery to show a movie in a way never before seen by mainstream audiences. Although the plot itself isn’t terribly complex, the editing is so labyrinthine that multiple viewings is almost certainly necessary. The good news is that it never gets boring, it’s well paced, and enthralling little details are discovered every time. Many moments include overlapping bits that also help to mentally organize the rearranged segments. It may confuse some viewers (perhaps that’s part of the point), but its singular narrative and expert character actors make it one of the most interesting, inventive, and intelligent cinematic experiments ever conducted.
– Mike Massie