So initially I was a bit annoyed that the cover to this new 10th Anniversary Blu-ray re-release of Christopher Nolan’s sophomore masterpiece, Memento, boasted a sticker which proudly announced that the movie was ‘from the director of Inception + The Dark Knight’. It really should be the other way around – Nolan’s later hits (the ones which clearly raked in the Box Office numbers) should have presented these titles as ‘from the director of Memento’, as, despite his great Hollywood outings, it was this masterful tour de force that seriously shook things up on the mind-games front, playing with illusion and reality, time and memory, long before Nolan incorporated some of the themes and ideas into his latter hits. That said, as I spun up the disc I suddenly realised that even I had forgotten most of this amazing film and its unique narrative stylisation, and needed a reminder – the irony of which was not lost on me considering its subject-matter.
“Memory is treachery.”
Amnesia is a medical condition which involves a temporary or complete loss of memory. It is generally split into two main forms (although there can be combinations of both) – retrograde and anterograde amnesia. Retrograde involves the loss of memories prior to the onset of amnesia: the sufferer may be able to memorise new events, but is unable to recall all or part of their life prior to the onset. Anterograde leaves the person able to recall all events prior to the onset of amnesia, but either partially or completely unable to form new memories, largely because there is a problem with the transferral of information from conscious short-term memory to permanent long-term memory.
“The facts: John G raped and murdered my wife. Find him and kill him.”
Memento charts the story of Leonard Shelby, a man with anterograde amnesia. We cut straight into his life as he has just killed a man, and then slowly work our way backwards to see the events that took place which drove him to that point. It turns out that Shelby suffered a trauma to the head some time back, when somebody broke into his home and attacked his wife, knocking Leonard unconscious during the assault. Since then it appears that he has been on a mission to find the man responsible. The only trouble is that he can’t remember recent events for any length of time – if he walks into a bar, and asks for a beer, by the time he sits down to wait for his drink he could easily forget that he even ordered one. To this end he has a meticulous routine to help him with his surroundings: he takes Polaroid photos to identify where he is living, the people he knows, and who they are to him. He has also taken more drastic measures to remind him of the mission that he is on, tattooing his entire body with notes about the horrific event and what he has to do next. But as the events in Leonard’s life unfold backwards, we start to question just how reliable his Polaroid memories really are...
“Notes can be lost. Camera doesn’t lie.”
Memento was something of a landmark event in filmmaking history. Sure, writer/director Christopher Nolan had previously played around with non-linear narrative structures in his debut indie flick Following, but in adapting his brother Jonathan Nolan’s short story, Memento Mori, he took things to a different level. Here he perfectly wielded the time-distorting technique to allow viewers to truly get into the mind of a man suffering from anterograde amnesia – by plotting his life backwards, and slowly unfolding the past trauma that caused him to get into this position, Nolan was able to give viewers front row seats into the mind of the amnesiac. You don’t have a clue what is going on, feebly trying to put the pieces together in brief 5 minute segments which often reveal just a tiny piece of the puzzle, itself a twisted version of the bigger picture. The central character, Leonard, cannot remember the recent events that brought him to killing a man, and so, as a viewer, we get to experience a little bit of what that feels like.
“She is gone. Time still passes.”
It is a confusing, disorientating but fascinating voyage, and one which is brought to life by a great performance from Australian actor Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential). Pearce, sporting striking bleached blonde hair for the role, as well as an array of tattoos that would make Cape Fear’s Max Cady proud, is perfectly chosen to play the amnesiac Leonard. Although the majority of the movie is played out in reverse (in colour), these story scenes are interspliced with chronological black and white segments, largely showing Leonard on the telephone in a motel room, and for these latter scenes Pearce was given leave to improvise a great deal of the dialogue, further adding to the ethereal, dream-like quality of the movie, and stacking up the confusion it evokes. With a noir-esque narration, Pearce’s Leonard feels like a throwback to the days of Raymond Chandler’s famous detective Phillip Marlowe, only with the added twist that he has a defective short term memory, and this style is perfectly indicative of the effect that Nolan was going for – the depiction of what is, essentially, a tense and atmospheric detective thriller, only presented in a puzzling, non-linear format.
“Never answer the phone.”
Joining Pearce we find a couple of familiar faces fresh from their success in the first Matrix movie – with both Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) securing roles as ‘current’ figures in Leonard’s life: an aloof femme fatale bartender and a dishevelled cop that we clearly aren’t supposed to trust, respectively. But as we’re told the story through the distorted perspective of Leonard’s fractured memory, could his ‘Polaroid’ representations of these individuals be misleading? Both Moss and Pantoliano are great in the roles, the former making you wonder what happened to her after her success in the Matrix trilogy, and the latter reminding you of the fact that he has a broader range than you might expect from an actor often typecast as the weasel-like villain.
“Photograph: House, Car, Friend, Foe.”
Nolan has since gone on to do bigger things, somewhat single-handedly resurrecting the Batman franchise, successfully trying his hand at a Houdini-esque mystery thriller, The Prestige, as well as giving audiences plenty of mind-blowing eye candy in the breathtaking Box Office smash Inception, where he again played around with narrative structure – only this time by telling concurrent stories as ‘dreams within dreams’ that take place simultaneously. In fact almost all of his movies have featured some kind of non-linear distortion, whether in the flashbacks of Batman Begins and The Prestige, or in the sleep-deprived delirium evoked in his remake of Insomnia. But many would argue that his best, most important, and most strikingly different and groundbreaking effort was back in 2000 with Memento. Here he truly proved his skills, combining a very original story with an extremely unusual non-linear filming structure which – uniquely – perfectly fits the subject-matter, bringing to life the integral themes of memory loss in a way that had simply never been done before. Populating the production with less well-known, but nonetheless talented, actors, and providing a haunting, David Lynch-esque score by David Julyan (who went on to score both Insomnia and The Prestige), Nolan’s sophomore effort is a truly landmark spectacle, a visionary experience which intrigues even on multiple viewings and remains an endlessly fascinating voyage into the mind of a vengeful amnesiac. If you still haven’t seen it, then now’s your time to rectify that mistake. But check your body first for tattoos, in case you’ve somehow forgotten the experience.
“I’ve done it.”