Modern Masterpieces #9: Memento
In the seventeen years since it first premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, very few films have been able to match Memento in complexity, ingenuity, or sheer disorienting thrills. A simple revenge film twisted and warped into a riddle wrapped inside an enigma, the film loses none of its charm or audacity after the multiple watches it requires to be fully appreciated. Christopher Nolan may be the biggest director in the world today, but despite the blockbuster budgets and all-star casts, he’s never reached these heights since (not even in Interstellar). A dark, downbeat study of false memories and manipulation, suffused with violent gunplay and hazy California sunshine, Memento continues to be a near-perfect cinematic puzzle. Confused? Maybe it’s time for another screening…
Though the film’s acting is top notch, the real draw is the young, hungry Nolan. Despite having millions of dollars to play around with in recent years, nothing thrills like seeing him create an exciting, dynamic thriller out a few million dollars, a handful of locations, and a genius screenplay. Adapted from his brother Jonathan’s short story Memento Mori, Nolan’s script balances fun set pieces and sharp one-liners with genuinely thought-provoking ideas of deception, memory and grief (all ideas he would revisit ten years later in Inception). Working with DP Wally Pfister (The Prestige, The Dark Knight trilogy), Nolan utilises moody black and white cinematography with scorching colour scenes to keep audiences up to speed with scene changes, ensuring the film keeps you on your toes whilst allowing you room to think and decipher. It takes a bold young director to choose a story this complicated for his sophomore film, but there’s a reason Nolan went on to conquer the world of film.
Alongside Guy Pearce, Nolan cast two of the great nineties supporting actors, fresh off their turns in The Matrix: Joe “Joey Pants” Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss. Neither has had a prolific career in the last two decades, which is a shame given how great they both are here. Pantoliano, so terrific in everything 1988’s Midnight Run to 1996’s film noir-update Bound, has endless fun as the irritating Teddy. Is he friend or foe to Pearce’s Leonard Shelby? It’s hard to tell, but it’s harder to not love Teddy just a little bit. Wearing tacky glasses and a hideous moustache, he’s a total pain in the ass, smugly talking circles around Leonard’s condition and constantly revealing how difficult it is being friends with a man who can’t remember him. Moss, meanwhile, is perfect as the cruel femme fatale whose relationship with Leonard is initially unclear. She seems to be on his side, yet one astonishing scene shows the extent to which she’s also willing to manipulate Leonard.
A slowly-unravelling mystery about a character who may or may not be an antihero, Memento requires a strong leading performance to guide viewers through, especially during the practically-impenetrable first half. Pearce’s performance rarely gets mentioned alongside the best in cinema, but it’s the rare performance that perfectly treads the line of ambiguity. Sometimes Leonard is a screwball comedian; the perfectly-polite tourist who can’t remember if he’s already paid his hotel bill. Sometimes he’s a viper ready to strike; suddenly convinced he’s being lied to, or the situation is more hostile than he imagines. Towards the end of the film, in a plot turn that legitimately throws everything you’ve seen into question, Pearce excels as a man who doesn’t know if he’s done the right thing, before delivering one of the most chilling voiceover narrations you’re ever likely to hear.
The black and white story of amnesiac Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky) and his wife’s accidental overdose runs alongside Memento’s colour scenes, which play in reverse order and slowly reveal the bizarre story at the heart of Nolan’s screenplay. Leonard is investigating a suspected ‘John G’ with his untrustworthy friend Teddy, a sinister ex-cop who Leonard has reminded himself ‘Don’t believe his lies’. He checks into a sleazy motel and begins asking questions, despite not remembering what questions he’s asked or who he’s asked them to. He visits a local dive bar, where waitress Natalie (Moss) gives him a beer he doesn’t remember she’s just spat in, and chases villains with a pistol only to realise he’s the one being chased. With each chapter of the story unfolding out of order, the real story behind Leonard’s investigation, Teddy’s lies, and Natalie’s manipulations don’t become clear until the final scene, by which point it seems that Leonard might just be the only person taking advantage of his condition.
Despite being considered one of the most complicated and difficult films ever made, Memento’s plot is a deceptively simple revenge story sent forwards and backwards until it requires a map to follow along. In black and white scenes that unfold in chronological order, Leonard Shelby is a heavily-tattooed man holed up in a motel room. During a home invasion, his wife was killed, while he suffered a head injury that left him unable to form new memories. His tattoos tell stories and give instructions, the most important of which is that ‘John G killed your wife’. Bothered by incoming calls from an unknown number, Shelby begins explaining his condition to the caller through another amnesiac he knew, a poor sap called Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky) who accidentally murdered his wife with an insulin overdose when he forgot he’d already injected her that day.
Christopher Nolan is likely the biggest film director in the world today, and certainly the most consistent blockbuster director of his generation. Every single one of his big budget films has been financially and critically successful, from his definitive superhero film The Dark Knight to his aggressively-disorientating ‘mind heist’ Inception to his recent depiction of World War II, Dunkirk. Before he was a household name, however, Nolan was mostly known for his second feature, the mind bending, non-linear story of an amnesiac sufferer searching for his wife’s killer. Released in 2000, the film was a word-of-mouth hit which earned an Oscar nomination and instantly got Hollywood taking notice of Nolan. How did this low-budget, confusing, ridiculously clever little thriller become one of the cult hits of the decades? Like the plot of Memento (and this blog post), everything will make sense in the end…
By Harry J. Ford
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