Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online for over fifteen years.
What's the big deal?
Memento is a psychological thriller film released in 2000 and is both written and directed by Christopher Nolan. The film stars Guy Pearce as an insurance investigator suffering from a type of amnesia after a brutal attack that leaves his wife dead. Unable to form new memories, he decides to seek revenge for his wife and collects photographs and tattoos with clues to help him find the killer. The film also stars former Matrix co-stars Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano. The film is comprised of two narratives - one shown in black-and-white in chronological order, the other in colour but shown in reverse order - that join up at the end to make one consistent storyline. Although the film only made $39.7 million worldwide (although this was still a healthy profit due to the reduced budget), the film was widely acclaimed by critics and went on to earn numerous awards and even Oscar nominations. Today, the film is widely regarded as one of Nolan's best films and is considered by many critics to be one of the best films of the decade. It was selected for preservation at the US National Film Registry in 2017.
What's it about?
Insurance investigator Leonard Shelby wakes up in a motel room, unsure of why he is there or how long he has been there. His last memory involves the brutal assault which killed his wife and him vowing to get revenge before a second assailant knocks Leonard out, leaving him with severe head injuries. Now unable to make or recall short-term memories, Leonard now relies on a series of notes and photographs as well as tattoos on his body to help him track down his wife's killer. His main note is the one that drives him forward: "John G raped and murdered my wife".
As Leonard continues to discover clues, he crosses paths with undercover cop Teddy who suggests that the killer may be waiting for Leonard at a nearby abandoned warehouse. He also finds an unlikely ally in barmaid Natalie who decides to help him after he tells her about his anterograde amnesia. But as time passes, he struggles to understand the various clues and how they all link together - as well as who is manipulating who...
Release Date (UK)
20th October, 2000
Academy Award Nominations
Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing
What's to like?
You might argue that Memento is a gimmick-ridden and pretentious thriller that uses its twisted chronology to confuse and befuddle viewers. And frankly, the film doesn't do much to dispel these apprehensions. However, the more you persevere with the film, the sooner it becomes apparent that this is the work of a master storyteller. Nolan's complex and twisting narrative becomes not just a gripping whodunnit but also a fascinating insight into the life of someone suffering from Leonard's condition. Caltech neuroscientist Christof Koch once described the film as "the most accurate portrayal of the different memory systems in the popular media". It may be a gimmick but the film's unique structure allows the film to not just reveal its secrets but also places the viewer into the warped mind of its protagonist while still remaining just about coherent enough to make sense. For what was essentially Nolan's feature length debut, it is hugely ambitious but wonderfully executed.
Easily his best performance since LA Confidential and possibly the best performance of his career, Pearce is helplessly captivating as Leonard who is a character as unique as he is different. This unusual lead role also helps the film stand out and makes it as enjoyable as it is. He feels desperate, scared and helpless as Leonard, fumbling around the film in search for clues and struggling to make sense of it all. But when it all comes together in the final shot of the film, the realisation suddenly washes over you and you feel like standing back and admiring it like some epic painting by one of the old masters. Combined with solid support from Trinity and Cypher... I mean Moss and Pantoliano, the film is a tightly packed but endlessly watchable thriller that deserves your recognition and respect.
- Despite being based on his brother Jonathan's short story, Christopher Nolan was credited with being the original screenwriter as the story - 'Memento Mori' - wasn't published until after the film's release.
- Cinematographer Mark Vargo turned the job of working on the film because he didn't understand the script so the job instead went to his friend and fellow cinematographer Wally Pfister. Vargo later admitted that his decision was a mistake while Pfister later admitted that he didn't understand the script either! Pfister would go on to make a further six films with Nolan.
- Weirdly, Teddy's phone number - 555 0134 - is exactly the same number as that belonging to Marla Singer, played by Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club.
- The entire shoot was conducted in just 25 days although the three lead actors were only together on set for the first day of the shoot. Moss filmed all her scenes in the first week but Pearce remained on set every day of the shoot.
What's not to like?
Anyone unfamiliar with Christopher Nolan's penchant for the unconventional might find themselves at odds with this difficult and subversive thriller. The dual narratives, working in different directions but still telling the same story, might give casual filmgoers a migraine but as soon as the penny drops and you begin to understand what Nolan is attempting, the film opens itself up to you and you can begin the get the fuller picture. Much like Tenet, the film itself is a puzzle for the viewer to solve and it takes a certain mindset to really get the most out of it. If you're expecting the straight forward then Memento is not for you.
However, there is a counter argument about the film which I can agree with, on some levels. Once you've understood what's going on, the film's actual narrative is pretty uninspired - the mystery isn't all that deep, meaning that Leonard's quest for the truth feels less epic than perhaps it should. Of course, Leonard isn't your average hero as he battles with his memory issues - he is your classic unreliable narrator, relying solely on his perceptions of what is around him rather than the facts and reasons behind them. It's easy to dismiss the film as a director's experiment, a pretentious excuse to mystify their audience with a simple gimmick. But Memento has far too good a screenplay for that argument to hold any real weight and frankly, it sounds like the whining of people who perhaps didn't understand what the film was about.
Should I watch it?
An excellent showpiece from Christopher Nolan, Memento is a film that shows a director and screenwriter brimming with confidence and ideas as well as the talent to bring them to the screen successfully. A complex and often confusing film, it nevertheless proves that great writing will always win out over expensive special effects, tired cliches and by-the-numbers directing. This film is like a rare and expensive whisky compared to the tequila slammers at the box office - and that's absolutely fine by me.
Great For: cinematic connoisseurs, fans of Christopher Nolan, neuroscience lecturers, anyone who loved Tenet
Not So Great For: the easily confused, bitter critics, anyone who prefers a low-brow comedy
What else should I watch?
Up until the release of Tenet, I would have argued for Inception being Christopher Nolan's best film to date. An equally complex thriller, the film features a stellar cast including Leonardo Di Caprio, Tom Hardy, Marion Cottilard, Joseph Gordon Levitt and Ellen Page as a group of dream infiltrators falling further and further down the proverbial rabbit hole. With mind-bending visuals, another brilliant screenplay by Nolan and a famously open-ended cliffhanger, Inception remains an essential watch if you have any love for cinema. But Tenet is now Nolan's masterpiece - a wonderfully intricate and imaginative thriller, Tenet is one of those films that benefits from being seen on a big screen. Full of amazing performances from the likes of Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh and John David Washington, it is the best reason anyone will need to be persuaded to go back to cinemas in the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic.
Of course, Christopher Nolan will forever be associated with Batman after his game-changing Dark Knight trilogy. Beginning with the incredible Batman Begins, the series introduced Christian Bale as the latest star to play Bruce Wayne and his nocturnal alter-ego but it embraced the darkness of the character and finally rescued the much loved Caped Crusader from the cheesiness of the Sixties TV show and the wretched bungling of Batman & Robin. But the follow-up, The Dark Knight, was a staggering success thanks to the amazing performance of the late Heath Ledger as the Joker as well as being an incredible film in its own right, deserving of the boat-loads of money it made at the global box office. And while The Dark Knight Rises didn't quite satisfy the rabid fans expecting lightning to strike twice, it still remains a very good Batman film albeit one which is somewhat bloated and diminished by the meme-worthy performance of Tom Hardy as Bane.
© 2020 Benjamin Cox
Benjamin Cox (author) from Norfolk, UK on September 20, 2020:
He certainly has. When he's on form, few filmmakers can touch him in my opinion.
Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on September 15, 2020:
This film introduced Nolan to many viewers, and he has continued to deservedly garner acclaim.