(In honor of this film’s unique storyline, try reading this poem backwards too.)
“Where am I?”
You ask and wonder;
You are someplace yet unknown,
Lacking memories of your own.
Your life’s asunder;
Know not why.
Helps you recall
The pain that drives you every day
Without a doubt as to your prey,
Here you are.
MPAA rating: R (for much language and brief violence)
Since I’ve very much enjoyed Christopher Nolan’s other films, especially Inception and The Prestige, I thought I should check out Memento, his first studio-funded project, which was based on his brother Jonathan’s short story “Memento Mori.” I watched it and found it to be everything people said it was: confusing, daring, intricate, and mind-bending, adjectives that have come to be synonymous with Nolan’s brand of filmmaking. Non-linear storytelling can be a love-it or hate-it selling point. I was willing to be confused in the hope of a payoff, while I knew from the start that this was not a film my VC would enjoy. If you want a film to enjoy casually, Memento is not it. You can watch it all the way through and still may be lost; heaven help you if you miss a piece of this tightly edited puzzle.
Leonard (Guy Pearce) is a man with anterograde amnesia; unable to store recent memories, his brain resets every fifteen minutes or so to completely forget where he is, how he got there, and what happened since the event that caused the amnesia. To get his bearings, he keeps photographs and notes and, for very important facts, tattoos, most of which explain to him that his wife was raped and murdered by someone named John G. whom he must seek out to exact his revenge.
In order to replicate the disorienting effect of Leonard’s lapses in memory, everything is broken up into disjointed sections that begin in medias res, with each division explaining the part before it. The film starts with a picture of a murder; then you see the murder itself. Leonard wakes in a hotel room with a man tied up in the closet; two segments later, you understand how that came about, even if Leonard himself will never remember the details.
One of the first questions for me kicked in when I wondered just how he knew the murderer was named John G. and how he obtained John G.’s license plate, despite his seemingly debilitating handicap. Doubt like that is exactly the point. Leonard’s “condition” leaves him entirely at the mercy of his notes and the explanations of others, if he chooses to listen to them. An apparent friend named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano from The Matrix) seems to want to help Leonard, but Leonard doesn’t know who he is. He could be his closest friend or his mortal enemy, and all he has to go by is a picture through which he has told himself not to trust Teddy, advice completely dependent on Leonard’s mindset at the time he wrote it. The same goes for a woman named Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss, also from The Matrix), whose involvement with Leonard ranges from sympathetic to abusive depending on which piece of the puzzle we’re watching. Right when you think you know what’s going on, the next segment casts a new light on things.
This kind of storytelling is extremely fascinating, but confusion is unavoidable at times. It took me half the movie to realize that a series of intermixed black-and-white scenes of Leonard talking on the phone were happening chronologically in the past so that they would meet the scenes that were happening backwards. I’m still not sure I understand everything, and a second viewing is almost required.
Christopher Nolan’s first big mindbender is both his most puzzling and his most alienating work. While I was intrigued to find out what would happen (or rather what happened) and a perspective-changing tragedy tugged the mental heartstrings, the film felt cold overall. Most of Nolan’s work has some light to it, whether it be the dubiously heartwarming conclusions of Inception and Interstellar, the one-sided happy ending of The Prestige, or the humanity of the boat hostages in The Dark Knight. In Memento, there’s no satisfaction for anyone, no good will or unqualified concern. Brighter elements like these perhaps might seem out of place in a story about mental illness and revenge, but without them, Memento is not as emotionally engaging as it is mentally. Combine that with the fact that it features more foul language than all of Nolan’s later films combined, and it falls toward the bottom of his filmography for me, even if it is a riveting and wholly original piece of work.
Best line: (Leonard, to his wife while she’s re-reading a book) “I always thought the joy of reading a book is not knowing what happens next.”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2016 S. G. Liput
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