It’s funny to think of a time when nobody had heard of Christopher Nolan.
Yet only 15 years ago, the director behind The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, Interstellar and The Prestige was – with only one low budget, little seen feature to his name – hardly a major player in Hollywood.
All that changed with Nolan’s second outing, Memento, a dizzyingly fragmented take on the noir thriller genre, released this month back in 2001.
In the film, we’re introduced to Leonard (Guy Pearce), who is searching for John G, the man who raped and murdered his wife.
The kicker? Leonard has anterograde amnesia meaning he cannot form any new memories, which obviously makes trying to gather clues more than a little tough.
To compensate for his condition, he relies on polaroids photos, body tattoos and a small network of dubious contacts, including Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), to help him piece together the case.
As we follow Leonard on his hunt – in story that moves simultaneously forwards AND backwards – we soon find ourselves as disoriented as our man, and we begin to suspect that there may be more to question here than merely Leonard’s memory…
Looking back at Memento, it’s easy to see Nolan establishing many of the themes (obsession, the nature of reality) and cinematic techniques (non-linear narratives, crafty plot twists) that would characterise his later career.
If he went on to make more successful films than this one, it’s arguable whether he ever made any that were better, and a large part of this is down to the Oscar-nominated screenplay co-written by himself and his brother Jonah (based off a short story by the latter).
Thanks to its intertwined forwards/backwards timelines, the script continually keeps us off balance and asking questions long after the credits roll, in a clever emulation of Leonard’s condition that keeps the whole thing from feeling like a cheap gimmick.
Hats off also to editor Dody Dodd (Oscar-nominated for her work on the movie as well), who keeps the transition between both narrative threads crisp, and to cinematographer (and frequent Nolan-collaborator) Wally Pfister, who’s lush colour and black and white visuals play a key role in helping us to distinguish between what happened “then” and what happened “later”.
Of course, all this technical brilliance would be nothing without a strong cast to breathe life into proceedings, and fortunately, Memento has some top shelf talent on offer in this department.
Moss is excellent as the seemingly-vulnerable bartender who may be less benign than she lets on, while Pantoliano turns in a nuanced and enigmatic performance in a role that benefits from his years of playing the “evil bastard” in other flicks.
But it’s Pearce who really shines, bringing depth and unsettling shades of warmth and fragility to a part many would have approached in a brooding, one-note fashion.
It’s thanks to all these different artistic and technical parts moving in unison that Nolan is ultimately able to pull the rug out from under our feet during the finale, when we at last realise that Memento isn’t at all what we thought it was about.
Look out! Spoilers!
See, it’s not actually a story about revenge, or even obsession.
I mean, don’t get me wrong – those are certainly important themes in the story. But really, Memento is a tale about self-delusion, and the lengths that human beings will go to in order to determine their own reality and attain self-validation.
In the haunting closing scenes, we learn that Leonard – with undercover cop Teddy’s help – tracked down the original “John G” some time ago and did indeed exact his revenge as planned.
Since then, Teddy has been taking advantage of Leonard’s insatiable thirst for vengeance and lack of short term memory to manipulate him towards killing another criminal who fit the“John G” profile, with the idea being that it would make both men happy.
Unwilling to believe that he has been living a lie, and furious with Teddy, Leonard destroys the evidence of having killed this faux “John G”. He then tampers with his other clues to implicate Teddy as his new target when his memory fades and he obliviously re-embarks on his mission.
And so it becomes clear to us that what Leonard can’t remember is much less of a concern than what he chooses to with what he can remember.
As he himself puts it:
“I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning.”
Rather than face the reality that he was helpless to stop his wife from being assaulted and is now more than likely doomed to a hopeless, confused existence, he instead builds for himself a world where he is an empowered hero on a hopeful, lucid quest for justice.
This is a version of reality Leonard will do anything to cling to, going so far as to willingly deceive himself into killing the wrong man – Teddy – at a later date, which will also conveniently allow him to perpetuate a crusade that by now he knows leads only to a (literal) dead end.
Like so many people in the world, in the end, Leonard is guilty of “choosing to make [himself] happy” by overlooking the inconvenient facts that prevent him from living a life filled with purpose.
The spoilers! They’re…they’re gone!
15 years after it was released, Memento has lost none of its jet-black shine.
The film remains a stark reminder of Christopher Nolan’s amazing filmmaking skill even when he was just starting out, and its slick presentation and trippy, open-ended structure make repeat viewings an absolute must.
That’s a wrap for this review – now it’s over to you!