Mark Boone Junior
Harriet Samon Harris
1 Hr., 53 Mins.
Memento April 3, 2018
hristopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) is a cinematic Russian doll, made to be deconstructed and played with yet never really understood. It is about a man (Guy Pearce, fantastic) suffering from anterograde amnesia and his quest to find the person responsible for raping and murdering his wife (Jorja Fox).
There’s a twist, though. Nolan does not structure this story as if he were conventionally repurposing the goings-on of the classic revenge fantasy. He, rather treacherously, scrambles everything up like a
frustrated puzzle master at his wits’ end. The narrative unfolds non-linearly – backwards, to be exact – and in a rare turn does the ending arrive within the film’s first five minutes, the introduction during the last five.
Such sounds like a gimmick. In some ways, it is. But the surprise here is that Nolan pulls it off, either because the story was so intricately mapped in the throes of pre-production or because this storyline and these characters are underlined in just enough mystery to keep us hungering for more long after the movie’s finished.
Since the film’s release some 18 years ago, Memento has become many things: the movie that propelled Nolan to the status of the celebrity director, the movie that set a new standard for the ever-sought-after successfully cerebral independent movie, the movie that made a new argument for the auteur. It has become a classic “rewatchable,” and a classic in general.
At the time of its inception, however, no one could have anticipated such staying power: In the 2000 the film was released, Nolan had only made one other film, and it hadn't made all too big a splash. It was 1998’s Following, a little-seen, 69-minute, black-and-white crime thriller that immediately made him a critical darling but didn’t make an impression on mainstream audiences. Memento, too, was small. It was produced on a budget of $9 million and took about a month to shoot. Its origins were also pretty humble. Legend has it that Nolan’s brother pitched the story during a road trip from Chicago to Los Angeles in the summer of 1996.
Yet it took off. After premiering at the Venice Film Festival, Memento received a standing ovation. Reactions at subsequent festival screenings were similarly rapturous; word of mouth was exultant. Foreign distribution was quick and successful. And while the American release was slow to pick up, the film became an enduring sleeper hit, earning its budget back and then some without fail.
Memento's structural technique has come to be its most famous facet: Culturally, it's become known as the backwards movie. I wonder if it would be as successful a film if its events did unfold sequentially – would it remain the powerful meditation on gratuitous violence, self-deception, and grief that it is? I suppose it could: The ending, which trades the understatedness of everything else with a showy voiceover, markedly cinematizes the atmosphere and could probably be placed anywhere.
But so much of what makes Memento great is broadened by nonlinearity. The motivations of supporting characters, like Carrie-Anne Moss’s femme fatale Natalie or Joe Pantoliano’s questionable wingman, Teddy, are made all the more interesting because we come to notice that we’d made conclusions about them long before even realizing what they were doing dancing about in the first place. And the final development, which shows us that Pearce’s protagonist is even more unreliable – and fucked – than we’d ever had believed, still manages to bewilder even after repeated viewings. (And is made better because it was there all along and we’d had no idea.)
Viewing Memento more than twice, though, ups the chances that its resounding impact might be diminished. The initial watching is supposed to be visceral, emotionally charged – an intense experience that works over your senses and isn’t meant to be comprehensively understood. A follow-up might provide clarity, more insight regarding these characters and increased opportunity to pick up on the little details embedded in the story.
I cannot imagine using and abusing this movie like a favorite book or a meaningful album – it is a feature to which we are supposed to strongly react. Consider it comparable to films like The Crying Game (1992) or Shutter Island (2010): a large portion of our enjoyment comes from shock value and discovery, and it’s better we keep it that way. I probably won’t watch Memento again. But it is an astounding cinematic statement nevertheless. A-