Movie Information

Genre: Thriller
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Ann Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Stephen Tobolowsky
Rated: R

Memento is either one of the most intensely brilliant, densely textured films ever made, or it’s a supremely clever con-job by a filmmaker high on the mere concept of screwing around with the viewer’s mind to no real purpose — except that he can. At the moment, I lean more toward the former view, even if a lot of what the film has going for it is its undeniable cleverness. The hook of British director Nolan’s film is that the story proceeds in reverse order — sort of. In a sense, Memento actually does start backwards, with its credits playing over the reverse action of the killing that opens the film, but afterwards it settles into a pattern of scenes that link together in reverse order. That is, when one scene ends, another picks up that leads to the beginning of the preceding scene. It’s a clever device — aided by other uses of fragmented time that don’t seem to necessarily fit anywhere in the narrative, but are necessary to following the story. However, the question arises as to whether it’s actually anything more than a clever device. The idea of a drama told backwards is hardly new. George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart tried it with a play called Merrily We Roll Along back in the 1930s. The difference here is that Nolan not only takes the idea to new extremes, but does so in an attempt to convey some sense of the confused and conflicted mind of his main character, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce, L.A. Confidential). Leonard is a man suffering from short-term memory loss. He remembers his past up to the traumatic point of the rape-murder of his wife, but is unable to “create new memories.” Anything that happens to him is quickly forgotten, and his only methods of “remembering” consist of making notes, tattooing key information on his body, and taking Polaroids of people, places and events he needs to remember in his quest for revenge on his wife’s killer. Structuring the film as he has, Nolan allows us to see the results with the same degree of confusion as Leonard, but then lets us in on how these things happened through the backwards structure. In this regard, Memento is a film where structure and story are on the same level. Put the story into purely linear terms and you’re left with an effective neo-noir and nothing more. But presented in this manner, it’s something else. In essence, it is the unconventional structure that gives the film its true substance. By deliberately leaving the viewer at sea, Memento becomes a sometimes profound statement on the nature of memory — on how unreliable even that which we are sure we know is, of how many details we edit out in order to make memories more what we want or need them to be. Perhaps the key to all this occurs in the film’s opening scene, where Leonard insists that he knows who he is, only to be told, “You know who you were,” and is offered the chance — which he significantly passes up — of finding out who he now is by making a trip into the basement. (Ultimately, we learn the signficance of that remark.) By the end (the beginning?) of the film, we have some answers, but for every answer Nolan opens another series of questions. Even things we assumed to be true are open to question. All we have to go on are the literal events — the scenes in reverse chronological order, not anything we are subjectively told by Leonard — and we’re left to sort that out for ourselves as best we can. As an exercize in filmmaking, it’s undeniably breathtaking, but whether it’s deeply rooted in anything more than Nolan’s desire to make a film destined to be talked about and endlessly analyzed is another question.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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