THE STORY – Leonard is tracking down the man who raped and murdered his wife. The difficulty, however, of locating his wife’s killer is compounded by the fact that he suffers from a rare, untreatable form of memory loss. Although he can recall details of life before his accident, Leonard cannot remember what happened fifteen minutes ago, where he’s going, or why.
THE CAST – Guy Pearce, Carrie-Ann Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Stephen Tobolowsky, Harriet Sansom Smith, Larry Holden & Callum Keith Rennie
THE TEAM – Christopher Nolan (Director/Writer) & Jonathan Nolan (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 113 Minutes
It’s uniquely rewarding to go back and revisit the films of Christopher Nolan. While charting the evolution of a (good) director is often fun, Nolan’s fascination with time and his attempts to depict it in increasingly abstract ways gives each of his releases a specific kind of tension. They are products of the periods in which they were made, yet they are cognizant of their impermanence and actively fighting against it. It’s an artistic preoccupation that has made Nolan one of the most acclaimed directors of the 21st century. While blockbusters like “Inception” (2010) and “Oppenheimer” (2023) have been praised for their complex narrative shifts, they don’t hold a candle to the mental gymnastics required to fully understand Nolan’s sophomore effort, “Memento.”
“Memento” is, first and foremost, a masterclass in execution. Given what we were shown minutes prior, it takes a relatively simple premise and manages to communicate it to the viewer in a surprising yet entirely logical manner. The premise concerns Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a man who suffers from anterograde amnesia, which means he cannot form new memories and forgets what he’s doing every few minutes. The problem is that Leonard has some unfinished business to attend to. The injury that led to his condition was caused by the same men who murdered his wife. Now he’s resigned himself to the outskirts of Los Angeles in an effort to find and kill the one mysterious attacker still alive, aka “John G.”
Nolan is playing with classic film noir material here. Still, the real stroke of genius lies in the presentation. “Memento” plays out in two different timelines: the first is a series of chronological black-and-white conversations, and the second is a series of color scenes shown in reverse order to mirror Leonard’s cluelessness. The effectiveness of the film’s dual presentation cannot be overstated. It’s one of the rare instances in which both sides of the narrative are equally gripping, and their eventual overlap is so seamless that it’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when it happens (the flip from black-and-white to color in the climactic scene is one of the smoothest in film history).
There are narrative twists along the way and revelations that clarify each character’s actions, but “Memento” is not a film that suffers from scrutinous repeat viewings. If anything, the reverse engineering of the story becomes more impressive when you know where the story is going and can recognize the intricate steps that were taken to make it make sense and engage a mainstream audience. That’s the thing about Nolan, though. “Memento” is probably his most complicated film behind “Tenet” (2020). Yet, it managed to gross $40 million on a $5 million budget and grabbed two Oscar nominations (one, appropriately, for Best Original Screenplay). The man knows how to dumb down intellectual concepts or intellectualize dumb concepts, depending on which side of the aisle you fall on concerning his style. Either way, the director’s penchant for iconography is on full display here.
Leonard’s tattoos, which detail the facts of his wife’s murder, are both a clever workaround for the character and a striking visual. The same goes for the Polaroid pictures that Leonard takes before scribbling essential details on the back. Leonard is the prototypical Nolan protagonist: haunted, determined, and widowed. However, the thing that sets him apart from the other loners in the director’s oeuvre is that heroism does not complicate his ultimate goal. There is no family to return to or a metropolitan city to save. Leonard’s desire for revenge is understandable, but the more time we spend with him, the more we see him interact with crooked cop Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and femme fatale Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), the less appealing he gets. The amnesia initially posed as a hindrance to overcome becomes an excuse to throw out facts that don’t suit his narrative or fabricate information that gets his future, clueless self to do away with people who get in his way. It’s another noir signature, and it’s fun to see Nolan push the morally ambiguous envelope further than he does in subsequent films.
Pearce is remarkable as the tortured amnesiac. He’s given the very tricky task of starting each scene in a state of confusion, and he finds different, often comedically inspired beats to hit each time. He’s smug, sure, but he’s also surprisingly good at capturing Leonard’s helplessness, as evidenced by the scene where Natalie berates his dead wife, then proceeds to hide all of the pens in the house so that he’s unable to write down what happened. Pantoliano, Moss, and Mark Boone Junior (who Nolan would bring back for “Batman Begins”) are given less to play with, as their principal duty is to mess with Leonard’s head and attempt to exploit his amnesia to their advantage. That being said, they all deliver, especially Pantoliano, who gives one of his sleaziest and somehow most likable performances. Teddy is the voice constantly in Leonard’s ear (quite literally, when taking the telephone call into account), and their fraught back-and-forth powers the film’s explosive ending.
“Memento” is a gigantic step up from Nolan’s debut film, “Following” (1998), but that does not mean it’s perfect. Larry Holden’s performance as Jimmy, Natalie’s drug-dealing boyfriend, leaves a lot to be desired, especially in the context of the other performances being given. There’s also the film’s editing, which is astonishing from a macro standpoint but spotty from a micro perspective. The car chase between Leonard and a criminal named Dodd (Callum Keith Rennie) is a little too jittery and handheld for its own good, even if it is broken up by one of the funniest bits in any Nolan film (Leonard kicking a hotel door in, then realizing that he had the wrong room number). These minor blemishes and some unrealistic dialogue (a hallmark of every Nolan screenplay) keep “Memento” from reaching the heights of some of the director’s best-known films. Still, they do not detract from how entertaining and rewatchable it is. What it lacks in scale, it makes up for in creativity, and what it has over Nolan’s other cinematic hits is an edge and a propulsive genre energy.