Saturday, February 25, 2012

100 Movies - No. 57: Memento

57. Memento (2000)
Drama, Mystery, Thriller, 113 minutes
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Guy Pearce, Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss

"What's the last thing you remember?"
"My wife...dying."

I remember watching Memento on cable and buying it a few days later. It was such an original way of telling a story that I was excited to show it to my friends at the earliest opportunity.

They hated it.

The opening scene shows Leonard Shelby (Pearce) killing Teddy (Pantoliano), but that scene is actually how the story ends. Leonard suffered a head injury when his wife was murdered by intruders and hasn't been able to form short-term memories since the event. He remembers everything up to that point, such as who he is and what he did for a living, but can't build new memories.

What would it be like to wake up every day and wonder where you were? What are you supposed to be doing that day?

In order to place the viewer in a similar position, Nolan tells the story in reverse. We see events unfold and new information is introduced each time. The information changes our perceptions of the events we have already seen and the people we have already met. Who can Leonard trust? How can he keep the information readily available if he's going to forget everything?

Nolan actually tells two stories. One is in black and white and proceeds in normal chronological order. This tells the story of Leonard's life before the accident. He worked as an insurance investigator and one of the claimants, Sammy Jankis, had the same problem with his memory. A tattoo on Leonard's wrist tells him to remember Sammy Jankis, and he's able to because it happened before he suffered the head injury.

A second story shows Leonard's hunt for his wife's murderer. This time, Nolan tells it in color and uses reverse chronological order.

Are you with me so far? Good.

You can see why my friends hated the film. It requires patience and your full attention to understand what is going on. Furthermore, Leonard is an unreliable narrator, so we can't trust everything. Nolan presumably did this to show that Leonard can't trust his own thoughts.

In order to function at all, Leonard employs a series of devices to aid his memory. He also sticks to a routine as much as possible. He takes photos of his car, his motel, and people he meets. As he finds out information about people, he writes notes on the photos.

Teddy is either a crooked cop, a complete liar, or both. He claims to be helping Leonard look for his wife's killer, but he makes several attempts to borrow Leonard's car. When you see the closing scenes, you'll understand what his true motive may be.

Natalie (Moss) is also claiming to help Leonard by providing information. Unfortunately, she also has motives of her own.

Leonard doesn't know who to trust. He also doesn't know how long he's been trying to avenge his wife's death. Because of the nature of the narrative, we aren't even sure that Leonard hasn't already killed the murderer at some point in the past. Are Teddy or Natalie using him for some other purpose? Are they even who they say they are?

I've seen Memento at least twice a year since I first saw it. It has endless replay value and it's interesting to see some of the events unfold when you know the outcome. Nolan gets the little details right as well as the big ones. Notice how Leonard forgets which way the motel door opens and how he brushes his hand against a glass in a restaurant because he's forgotten that he put it there.

Each time I watch a Nolan movie I think it's the best thing he has ever done. Whether it's The Dark Knight, Inception, The Prestige, or Memento, he treats his audience with respect. Rather than spell out every little aspect of the story, he allows the audience to draw its own conclusion. That alienates some viewers, as it did with my friends, but the payoff is worth it if you are willing to pay full attention.

If you like Memento:

All of Nolan's films are worth watching, but I would suggest Inception to fans of Memento as the script is just as complicated. Most of my friends hated that one too.

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  1. First of all, I hate your friends! Haha, I'm kidding. I understand your pain. I'm nearly alone when it comes to movies, beacuse 99% of my friends have terrible taste. I love this list of yours. Memento is another one of my favorite films and Nolan one of my favorite directors. I lookk forward to every movie of his and he never ceases to amaze me. It's a shame and a terrible oversight that he hasn't ever been nominated for a Best Director Oscar.

  2. I have a theory that Nolan is too clever for the average moviegoer. He doesn't spell things out and the plots are often complicated, unusual, or both. I really think half of the old white guys who vote don't have a clue about stuff like Inception. It's too much effort.

  3. Great deconstruction of murder mysteries. I tried to get someone to watch years but the whole "backwards" style was a deal-breaker, heh. I'm glad that a high-def version is available over Netflix streaming.

    I also recall watching the alternate version on the special version DVD and was amazed at how coherent it was. I don't think there's a Nolan movie that I don't like.

  4. Hi Clarence,

    I haven't seen Following, but I like all of Nolan's other movies. I've also seen the DVD special feature when everything happens in the correct chronological order. It really did seem simple when viewed that way. I think it's a stroke of genius that the reverse telling allows us to experience some of Leonard's disorientation.