Before Christopher Nolan revitalized the Batman franchise and essentially changed the archetype for all other superhero films, he was already redefining crime dramas with the cult classic Memento. The premise, like many other Nolan films, borders on being overly fantastical, but is just too damn cool to write off. The main character, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), is seeking revenge on the man who raped and killed his wife after breaking into their house. The killer also attacked Leonard, leaving him with a head injury that caused him to develop a rare form of memory loss. He can’t form new memories of anything that occurred after the attack. With the help of polaroid pictures and tattoos that cover his whole body to remind him of what he knows, he sets out with his cop friend Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) on a confusing path to find the man responsible. Carrie-Anne Moss also plays Natalie, a bartender who seems to be looking out for Leonard, but whose real motives and hard to discern.
This concept would be memorable enough already, but the narrative tricks are what really cause Memento to remain embedded in fans’ collective memory. The film begins with what is chronologically the last scene and slowly flashes backward. The effect is that the audience never knows where Leonard is, how he got there, or why he is doing anything. It’s the closest thing to actually having anterograde amnesia. Leonard will wake up in different places, or just suddenly find himself wandering somewhere. In one of the most clever moments, he comes to in the middle of a foot chase and has no idea what is going on. Many elements set up in the first scene have their pay off slowly as the film progresses. Some of Leonard’s notes to himself have parts that are crossed off and the question of how he got his suit and car are all addressed with excellent payoffs.
The concept behind Memento requires quite a lot of suspension of disbelief to be taken seriously. As with much of his best work, Christopher Nolan’s writing partner and brother Jonathon Nolan shares a lot of credit for pulling off a crazy concept without going too over the top. It’s easy to imagine the concepts behind Nolan’s films failing in the hands of less competent directors and turning into second rate action fare starring the likes of Jason Statham or Jet Li. Nolan would also continue playing with unconventional narrative structure and plot twists long after this film. The film certainly has its fair share of unlikely scenarios, if not outright plot holes. However, in the tradition of only the best action films, everything moves too fast for these questions to linger for very long. Even on repeat viewings, it is simply too well constructed for the complaints of internet detractors to really matter.
It’s fairly difficult to talk about Memento without discussing Nolan’s filmography as a whole. The reverse narrative structure seems like only the start for the much more convoluted plot of The Prestige, which starts close to the end, cuts back to the middle and then alternates between there and the beginning. Even the first 30 minutes of Batman Begins starts in the middle of the narrative and flashes back to Bruce Wayne’s childhood. A man haunted by the memory of his dead wife is also a thread that runs through The Prestige and Inception. Make that dead parents or a dead Maggie Gyllenhaal and then both Batman films are covered as well. In many ways, Memento was Nolan’s warm up for larger, more expensive and elaborate action pieces. The chases and fights are all very low key but still manage to be stylish. The budget for the film was a mere $9 million and was shot over a period of 25 days. Since Nolan proved he could do impressive things on a humble budget, it has been no surprise that he has since graduated to bigger blockbusters and retained his intelligent sense of style.
Check back in the coming weeks as Cultural Transmogrifier reviews more of Christopher Nolan’s films leading up to the release of The Dark Knight Rises.