CINEMA CLASSICS: Memento (2000)

How does Christopher Nolan’s infamous brain-teaser hold up? Richard tries to discern memory from fact to find out. 

Who made it?: Christopher Nolan (Director/Writer), Jennifer Todd, Suzanne Todd (Producers), Newmarket Capital Group.

Who’s in it?: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano.

Tagline: “Some memories are best forgotten.”

IMDb rating: 8.5/10 (Top 250 #41).

Can you really trust your own memories? Can you honestly believe what people tell you? Can you really know for sure your actions have meaning? I think these are just a few of the questions Christopher Nolan’s psychological thriller is asking you.

We follow Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) as he tries to find his wife’s killer, only the problem is he suffers from short-term memory loss. The film is also told out-of-order with two different timelines, one in colour and the other in black and white, which helps us to piece together the events which led to Leonard finding himself in his situation. In the black and white timeline, he talks on the phone with a mysterious caller and tells him about a man named Sammy Jankis who he investigated to see if he could claim medical benefits from the insurance company Leonard works for. Sammy had a similar condition to Leonard’s, but he didn’t think Sammy’s life could work because he had no purpose or routine, yet Leonard has purpose and routine mainly by taking photographs of the people he comes across to help him with his investigation. He meets a man named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) who claims to be helping him to find the killer who Leonard knows only as John G. Who is John G.? Why did he kill Leonard’s wife? Maybe Leonard has already killed him once or twice before? How would he know?

I believe this ambiguity which runs throughout the entire film is what makes Memento such a compelling watch, as it takes more than a few viewings to decide for yourself what the truth is. Nothing is certain and what conclusion you draw is all down to what you think you see on the screen. Nolan is a filmmaker who believes you are just as smart as he is and makes you want to find out what will happen next as we follow Leonard on his journey to find John G. We don’t know what is coming next because of the non-linear storytelling style. We don’t know who to trust or what anyone’s true motivations are. That is one reason why I like the film because, in real-life, nothing is as black and white as we would like it to be, and it’s never as clear-cut as we think it is.

Pearce delivers a fantastic central performance as a man with a memory problem. He turns the character of Shelby into a compelling one, and makes you want to see if he will find his wife’s murderer or not. He has drastically tattooed the facts he has collected from his investigation onto his body, so he can refer to them whenever he needs to remind himself of something important. Question is, though, when Leonard eventually finds John G. and kills him, was it really because he was successful or was he just being used? The character of Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) is a junkie whose boyfriend was a drug dealer and she has wound up in trouble due to her boyfriend going missing and his partners wanting their money. She manipulates Leonard into getting rid of a man named Dodd for her. Is this a separate incident or is she, her problems with drug dealers and Teddy all more closely linked with Leonard’s crusade? Again, I think this is something you can draw your own conclusions from.

The non-linear style can be off-putting for some, and I have to remind myself of what happened before the next scene comes along, but the more you watch it, the clearer the picture becomes and you realise just how clever the movie is. Leonard is an unreliable narrator and it’s even suggested he may have been the one that killed his wife, and Sammy Jankis was just somebody he made up. Sammy killed his diabetic wife by overdosing her on insulin as he couldn’t remember he already gave her an injection and was promptly put in a mental home. Could Mr. Shelby really be Sammy? Did Leonard just make up the murder to live with himself? You’ll have to watch it to find out.

Memento is a brilliantly directed film which instantly draws you in with its unique style, top-notch acting and the layers of ambiguity which constantly make you question everything you see. I’ve seen the film about five times now and I still don’t know for sure about the events which take place. Films which instantly grab you and make you question nearly everything – whilst wrapped around a pretty basic premise – are always a welcome treat. Nolan is a master of multifaceted storytelling and making what seems like the most mundane of story ideas seem like brilliant cinematic works. Memento only gets better every single time I see it and I always come away from it with a different viewpoint. I love trying to figure it all out, and just when I think I have the film pegged, I watch it again and I’m back to square one.

Memento is also a film of details. You may miss a lot of them the first time, but when you go back to watch it, you may see some things you didn’t before and think to yourself: “Oh, so THAT’S why he did that!” Its not a film you have to necessarily scrutinise too much, but when you do sit down to watch it a few more times, you will find yourself reading more into it and watching out for all the little clues which form a bigger part of the narrative. If you have never seen Memento before, then I hope this review has encouraged you to go and watch it as soon as possible. If you have seen it before, then go and watch it again and maybe you will find yourself questioning if memory is really all that reliable.

Best Scene

How do you interpret the ending?

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The Limited Edition DVD (and in the standard Region 2 edition) allows the movie to be watched in the exact chronological order of the events in the film. The first couple scenes of the regular cut of the movie appear normal in this version, meaning they are not reversed. However, this version of the movie is on Disc 2, is quite difficult to reach (the user must answer several questions and solve a puzzle), and forward, reverse and chapter skip capabilities are disabled.
  • The film took twenty-five days to shoot.
  • The medical condition experienced by Leonard in this film is a real condition called Anterograde Amnesia – the inability to form new memories after damage to the hippocampus. During the 1950s, doctors treated some forms of epilepsy by removing parts of the temporal lobe, resulting in the same memory problems.
  • Christopher Nolan’s screenplay was based on his brother Jonathan Nolan’s story Memento Mori. But the screenplay is still considered original (rather than adapted) because Jonathan’s story wasn’t published until after the film was completed.
  • Aaron Eckhart, Brad Pitt, Charlie Sheen, and Thomas Jane were considered for the role of Leonard before Guy Pearce got the part.

Richard Bal

My name is Richard, I like beer, heavy metal and movies, but maybe not necessarily in that order.

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