It’s funny to think that, once upon a time, nobody had heard of Christopher Nolan. Yet only 15 years ago, the director behind The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar, and The Prestige was hardly a major player in Hollywood. All that changed with Nolan’s sophomore outing, Memento – a dizzyingly fragmented take on the neo-noir genre that remains as captivating today as it was back in March 2001.
Memento introduces us to Leonard (Guy Pearce), who is stalking a man named John G, who raped and murdered his wife. The kicker? Leonard has anterograde amnesia, which means he can’t form any new memories, something that makes trying to gather clues decidedly difficult.
To compensate for his condition, Leonard relies on polaroid photos, body tattoos and a small network of dubious contacts to help him piece together the case. Among Leonard’s most prominent associates are bartender Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) and enigmatic “helper” Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), both of who appear to have their own agendas.
As Leonard’s investigation continues, his past and present begin to overlap, and it soon becomes clear that Leonard’s lost memories contain bigger secrets than the whereabouts of John G.
Re-visiting Memento, it’s apparent that Christopher Nolan used the film as a testing ground for many of the themes (obsession, time, reality) and cinematic techniques (non-linear narratives, plot twists) that now characterise his career. And if Nolan has made more successful films following this template since, he’s almost certainly never made any that were better.
This is largely thanks to Memento‘s Oscar-nominated screenplay, which Nolan co-wrote with his brother Jonah (based on a short story by Jonah), and which remains his strongest effort to date. In lesser hands, the script’s unique structure – present-day and flashback scenes are shown in alternating order, before joining up for the finale – could easily have amounted to little more than a cheap gimmick designed to keep us off-balance. Instead, Nolan uses this disorienting mechanic as a way of putting us in Leonard’s shoes; his confusion matches our own, and the immersive quality of this is uncanny.
Achieving this effect without allowing Memento to descend into an incomprehensible mess is arguably the greatest triumph of Nolan’s career – but others deserve their share of the credit, too. So, hats off to the film’s Oscar-nominated editor Dody Dodd, who keeps the transition between both narrative threads crisp, and its cinematographer Wally Pfister, whose lurid colour and haunting black and white visuals make it possible to distinguish between the film’s overlapping timelines.
Then there’s the cast. Moss is excellent as Natalie, effortlessly shifting gears from nurturing to venomous as required, while Pantoliano’s nuanced performance benefits from (and plays with) our preconceived notions of him as one of cinema’s perennial bad guys. But it’s Pearce who shines brightest, bringing depth and unsettling shades of warmth and fragility to a part many would have approached in a brooding, one-note fashion.
Together, the cast and crew combine to elevate Memento into the upper ranks of noir flicks, alongside the likes of Chinatown and Touch of Evil – mystery movies that were also about something. Because Memento isn’t just a story about revenge or even obsession; it’s also a harrowing parable about self-delusion, and the lengths human beings will go to for self-validation.
This thematic depth ensures that Memento never loses any of its jet-black appeal, even after repeat views dull the impact of its novel structure and crafty plot twists. Indeed, 15 years on, this amnesiac neo-noir thriller is as unforgettable as ever.