|Written by Mel Odom|
|Tuesday, 04 September 2001|
"Memento" is movie production as a unique art form. The concept of vengeance is an old one, presumably brought into being directly following the first act of aggression triggered by jealousy and hate. Vengeance has been a driving force of several movies, and all of the action heroes that have pursued the satisfaction of revenge through celluloid worlds owe a certain part of their career to this raw emotion.
When discussing "Memento," the word "elegance" pops up immediately. "Memento" possesses a stripped-down, fist-in-your-face kind of elegance that few other movies have ever had to this degree. The audience is sucked into the storyline, wide-eyed with wonder and awe because the first few minutes of the film are truly what would be the end of most other movies, yet the audience doesn’t even know the characters, doesn’t even know what’s at stake except for the details printed on the DVD case. And it’s the pursuit of this understanding of character and situation that firmly plants the viewer in his or her seat for the next 113 minutes.
Instead of hammering the audience with a soundtrack featuring new music or Top 40 hits that were around at the time the film was made, director/writer Christopher Nolan moves the viewers through the raw emotions, mystery and suspense that is hardwired into the story with a minimum of sound effects and scoring. As a result, the audio portion of the film is lean, but used with surgical precision. Maybe the story would be just as gripping and intense on a conventional speaker system, but the surround sound system chosen for a home theater setup is truly welcome, and succeeds in placing the viewer at the dark heart of the thrill ride ahead.
Without surround sound, the viewer won’t experience the hammering blast of gunfire in Chapter 2 with the same anxious unease, and the underscoring of heartbeats wouldn’t come across with the same leaden thumping noise.
In Chapter 3, birds chirp in the background around the Discount Hotel where Leonard (Guy Pearce) stays for the moment. Then the underscoring of the heartbeat riff returns, bringing an immediate anxious tension. The sound in the film is definitely low-key, but every effect is used for maximum impact. The basso beat in Chapter 7 that mirrors the action taking place on screen, as well as the incongruous chirp of a keyless locking mechanism in a car that startles the viewer with its suddenness, as well as the seemingly misplaced normalcy of the sound, work to layer the viewer into the world being presented.
Leonard is a flawed hero, a man both hunted and haunted. Once he was an insurance investigator, a man who learned to look for con games by looking into another’s eyes to know if he or she was telling the truth. Since his wife’s death, Leonard has been searching for her killers. However, that attack also left him seriously damaged. Due to the injury he suffered, Leonard can no longer make short-term memories of any kind; everything fades after 20 minutes. The only things he can remember are those things that he learned and knew before the attack. As a result, Leonard is a man constantly relearning his life and the people who inhabit it. He has a system: an Instamatic camera and a pocket full of Polaroids of the people and things he’s met and experienced.
In Chapter 8, the electric slide screams, overlaying the images of a woman’s face under thick plastic, ripping through the viewer’s nervous system like fingernails on a chalkboard. Leonard’s past world, the world that he can remember, is horrible. As in other sections of the movie, the first-person narration is even more telling because of the tough, no-nonsense delivery. The thumps of someone locked in a closet echo through the mains. In front of the motel, car sounds roll around the listener, while the grating brake squeal from an unpredictable character’s car emphasizes the darkness that threatens to engulf all of the players.
Also in Chapter 8, the liquid hiss of water sluicing through the shower, the thud of the slamming door and the toilet flush are more terrifying than dialogue because the audience knows Leonard has no clue why he’s in that bathroom, and we know he probably shouldn’t be taking a shower. He’s naked, exposed and vulnerable.
Chapter 9 starts with a rush, punctuated by the thudding basso of pursuit and the explosion of gunfire that ricochets from the speakers. In a subsequent scene, the rumble of Leonard’s car engine underscores violence about to break out. Again, the overall sound factor is greatly played down, making the interplay of light and shadow, of present and past, of great import.
Guy Pearce delivers a stunning performance as Leonard, an avenger trapped to live forever in the past, a man who will never have a future, a man who can never trust his present. From our first introduction to Leonard, when we see the tattoos marking his body, the audience is prepared to accept Leonard as villain or as victim. Only the steady rolling of the footage lifts the curtains to Leonard’s past and to the truth.
Filmmaker Nolan’s interview on the DVD is both revealing and genuine. He loves his work and is passionate about the two films he’s done. The story for "Memento" came from a short story written by Nolan’s brother, Jonathan. Part of the package of special features not written about on the DVD case is the inclusion of Jonathan Nolan’s short story, absolutely a must-read that is much different than the movie. Both brothers excel at their chosen take on the story, and both versions of the story deserve attention.
"Memento" is an excellent movie for a fan or student of film noir. The film is a study of lies and half-truths woven together into a tapestry of anxious terror, possessing the same kind of flair Alfred Hitchcock did back at the height of his career. As the story unfolds, the audience will find the mystery revealed in layers that only add to the growing sense of apprehension. Movie audiences will talk about this film for years to come, and the DVD is certainly deserving of a place in a well-rounded collection.