|Written by Bill Warren|
|Friday, 01 September 2006|
It’s unusual for a mass-release movie to be as unusual as “Memento.” In one sense, it’s a well-made, modern-day film noir—but how the story is told makes all the difference, and quickly developed the unusual reputation the movie still has today. Just check the message board for the film on the Internet Movie Database and you’ll find dozens of messages discussing and arguing about the plot of the film.
The movie is told backward—AND forward. The scenes in color proceed in reverse chronological order. That is, the first scene with Leonard (Guy Pearce) is chronologically the oldest; all the scenes (except the title shot) run from beginning to end—but then the next successive color scene takes place before the one we just saw. It marches on this way, leap-frogging over itself, to the “end” (beginning) of the movie. Meanwhile, there are black and white scenes of Leonard puzzling out whatever he can; these proceed in standard chronological order—but all of them take place before the earliest-in-time (but last seen) color sequences.
This is as complex as it sounds, but the movie is rarely confusing. In the first full scene we see, Leonard explains to a motel manager (Mark Boone Junior) that he has lost the ability to develop long-term memories. Eventually, we learn he was injured when he dashed into the family bathroom to find his wife being raped. He shot one man but didn’t notice another, who hit him over the head; the injury wiped out his ability to retain new memories; he experiences everything in fifteen-minute segments. He remembers everything up to the injury, but not afterward. So he has to leave himself notes, Polaroid pictures, thick binders of research material, even tattoos all over his arms, chest and legs. They’re not designs—they’re what the Leonard of right now thinks is the most important information the Leonard of the next fifteen minutes needs. This inability to retain new memories is a real but rare condition.
Jonathan Nolan (evidently no relation to the director) had the bright idea of dropping a person with this condition into a mystery—and make the guy with memory problems the detective. It’s a personal case for Leonard, though, as his wife was murdered the night he was injured—or was she? The screenplay (by Christopher Nolan) introduces puzzles within puzzles. Who’s this guy Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), who clearly knows Leonard but rarely gives him a straight answer? One of Leonard’s tattoos tells him to “remember Sammy Jankis” (Stephen Tobolowsky)—indicating Sammy was someone Leonard knew, or knew about, PRIOR to the injury. Sammy also had this same condition, and a wife (Harriet Sansom Harris) who seemed to fear that Sammy might be faking. She turned to the insurance investigator—Leonard.
Then there’s Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss); when Leonard encounters her in a diner, she clearly remembers him, and clearly has strong feelings about him—but of course, he can’t remember her for more than 15 minutes. So she could easily be lying. Teddy might be lying, too. What happened to Natalie’s boyfriend? Who’s Dodd (Callum Keith Rennie)?
The unusual structure of “Memento” allows Nolan to keep resetting our perceptions of the leading characters, even Leonard, who seems to be going through agony over the death of his wife and his inability to find the “John G.” he suspects was the killer and the man who so terribly altered Leonard’s life.
Nolan plays fair with his plot, but it does allow him to keep surprising us, not just with how we view the characters, but about what’s actually going on. All this makes “Memento” not just watchable, but compulsively so; you become so engrossed in the story and characters that the movie is nearly hypnotic in its power. And it raises questions about our perceptions of our own memories—can they entirely be trusted?
Nolan carefully leads us through the film; he sets up the premise and his method very clearly: each sequence ends with the same image (or almost the same) that the previous sequence began with, looping them together. The forward-progressing scenes present the biggest challenge: they do have narration, but it’s by Leonard, who knows no more—and ultimately less—than we do. It takes some time to realize these are taking place before the color scenes, but it takes at least a second viewing of the movie to sort out who’s doing what, who it is that keeps phoning him in his dingy motel room, and how this relates to the rest of the plot.
It’s possible that Nolan stumbled here and there, but you’d have to be more patient than I am to suss all this out. The commentary track by Nolan is informative, but more about the making of the film than about the unusual structure and how it all fits together. There are a few cheats—a couple of lapse dissolves in the color segments seem to leap over a longer span of time than the 15 minutes Leonard’s memory is supposedly limited to.
The script is very good, occasionally featuring memorable lines: “It’s beer o’clock,” Teddy proclaims, “I’m buyin’.” The performances, too, are very good; Guy Pearce has a tough job in keeping our sympathies and allowing us to see that Leonard is a smart guy—but that intelligence per se isn’t much help to him now. Pantoliano is always a treat, especially when he’s a ratty little rascal as he is here. Carrie-Ann Moss, with her large, dark, liquid eyes, suffers beautifully, and can embody a constricted anger.
The movie was a major surprise; Nolan had made only two minor features before this, but “Memento” was such a critical success and one of those movies everyone talked about at the water cooler the next day that he was handed a bigger project, “Insomnia,” with Al Pacino. And after that, of course, came “Batman Begins.”
The Blu-Ray disc of “Memento” is short on extras; aside from language options and the commentary track, the only other extra is an uninteresting “anatomy of a scene” short. But “Memento” seems almost made for high definition because of the process’s intensified sense of immediacy—and if any movie ever benefited from that quality, it’s “Memento.” Nolan intended the black and white scenes to be more documentary-like than the highly subjective (necessarily) color scenes, but both segments seem equally real for almost contradictory reasons—and this is underscored by the greater clarity of high-definition video processing.
The sound can surprise you. Occasionally, Nolan uses the back speakers for important sounds, mostly to establish a sense of place, but you’d be wise to pay as close attention to the speakers as you do to the screen in front of you. And “Memento” demands—and rewards—strict attention. In many ways, it’s one of the most unusual movies of the last 30 years.