Retro Review: ‘Memento’

Release: 2000

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Jorja Fox, Stephen Tobolowsky

Plot: Leonard is hunting the man who killed his wife, a challenge complicated by his inability to form new memories.

Review: Although Memento was not the first movie directed by Christopher Nolan, it was his first wide release and it immediately made Nolan one of the most talked about directors in Hollywood. In the 22 years since Nolan has proved himself to be one of the most striking and bankable directors in the business (although his reputation doesn’t quite stand up to a global health crisis, as Tenet showed). Revisiting Memento more than 20 years later, the mind-bending neo-noir thriller holds up just as well, if not better, than Nolan’s biggest hits.

At its basic essence, it’s a simple story. Leonard (Pearce) is investigating a crime, and follows clues to the logical conclusion and exacts his personal revenge. So far, so noir. We encounter the corrupt and untrustworthy Teddy (Pantoliano) and the femme fatale Natalie (Moss) on the journey to an unexpected resolution and some personal growth. In the scheme of things, its not a complicated plot, but Nolan seeks to enhance the experience by putting the audience in the shoes of our protaganist and his fairly unique condition.

Since the attack on him and his wife, the incident that put this story in motion, Leonard hasn’t been able to form new memories. As such, every scene begins with Leonard unsure of how he came to be where he is or what he was doing there. To reflect this, the scenes are presented in reverse order leaving us just as unclear to the situation as Leonard, with the next scene providing us with those answers. It may feel counter-intuitive to begin a mystery with the final scene, but the truth proves to be more than a little subjective and the real question comes down to knowing who is playing who and why. The truth is that it’s the biggest and most shocking twist comes from the most inconspicuous part of the tale.

Keeping the story story simple helps make this work, and Nolan understood the importance of starting every scene with a strong hook. Sitting in a bathroom with an empty bottle but not feeling drunk, being chased by an armed man…every scene immediately grabs your attention. Not many movies can make this claim. A story told in reverse could be a gimmick, but the care that has gone into the story, characters, and the experience of the audience that it stands as a powerful and effective artistic choice.

Leonard Shelby is a striking looking character. The slender, angular features of Guy Pearce are perfectly suited to a Noir tale (as previously seen in L.A. Confidential), combined with bleached blonde hair and a sharp grey suit, is already eye-catching before the reveal of the notes and facts about his case tattooed all over his body. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you’d know the image of Leonard clutching his Polaroid photos as his only way to understand the world around him.

Even being very familiar with the film, this is a movie that still draws you in and has you examining every detail. If you haven’t seen it since it came out, make the time to revisit it. If you haven’t seen it at all, you really should remedy that. It’s reputation as a career making feature for Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathon is well deserved.

Rating: TEN out of TEN