Film Review: Memento
Starring: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Joe Pantoliano
Written and Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Running Time: 113 minutes
**** (out of four)
Every once in a while, a film will come along that it so refreshingly original, so truly captivating, that it restores faith in the motion picture industry. Films like Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, and The Sixth Sense are part of this new breed of classics. I would like to submit the latest candidate for election to this elite group: Memento.
Written and directed by newcomer Christopher Nolan, Memento is a film that explores the fragility (and validity and subjectivity) of our memories. Our protagonist, Leonard Shelby (L. A. Confidential’s Guy Pearce), is on a mission of revenge. His wife has been raped and murdered, and while fleeing, the assailant dealt such a severe blow to Leonard that he has lost the ability to form short-term memories. This means that every fifteen minutes or so, his mind is purged of all memories since the attack. Leonard must rely on a disciplined system of photographs and tattoos to make any forward progress in his journey. In his constant state of paranoia and confusion, Leonard also looks to a sympathetic bartender named Natalie (The Matrix’s Carrie-Anne Moss) and a mysterious man named Teddy (Moss Matrix co-star Joe Pantoliano) for guidance.
To add to the originality of this film, the story is presented to us in reverse. The film grips you from the opening minute, which unfolds in a dream-like rewind to reveal a horrific crime. The intensity does not let up for the remaining 112 minutes. The use of this ingenious element of reverse storytelling ensures that we, the audience, experience the film along with its protagonist. We never know more than Leonard does, because like him, we have no knowledge of the past. The constant backpedaling, periodically interrupted by black-and-white narrative from Leonard, will soon have you questioning what you have seen, and in what order you saw it.
So why does this hypnotic journey of a film receive my first four-star rating? Because Memento passes my three tests for a classic:
First, it clearly passes one of the tests of a great film &- it makes you think. In fact, I recommend that you watch it with a group of friends and have a rich, meaningful, post-viewing discussion on complex existential and psychological topics (you’ll thank me for it later). How crucial have memories been in defining who we are? How have memories shaped the way we deal with others? To what extent can we even trust our own memories? These and other issues are presented at some point in this film.
Second, great films do not solve all of its mysteries for the viewer. This is not a linear story, and it is not a story that answers all of your questions at the end (or the beginning, depending on how you look at it). If this bothers you, then you may have a difficult time enjoying Memento as much as I did. But then again, unconventional storytelling is often the sign of creative genius. It is no coincidence that the classics I named in the opening paragraph were all nominated for the Academy Award for Best Screenplay (only The Sixth Sense did not capture the Oscar). Don’t be surprised to see Memento among the nominees next February.
Finally, true classics can never be appreciated in one viewing. Memento is a film that just dares you to watch it again (and again). I know that the next time I watch it, I will discover something that I did not see the first time around. I am highly anticipating the arrival of the DVD version (I can only shell out $8.50 so many times on this shoestring budget before I go broke).
There you have it. A gem among the utter garbage that film studios are throwing us right now (I won’t bore you with the list). So while I cannot promise that you will enjoy Memento as much as I did, I can certainly guarantee that you won’t forget it.