The story of Memento is deceptively simple, when reduced to a single sentence: Leonard Shelby, a man with no memory, seeks revenge on the man who raped and murdered his wife. A man he knows to be called John G.
The genius of Memento is that it's not simple. We begin the film with the act of vengeance taking place and through the film we retrace Leonard’s investigation to its source - and the places it takes us to are surprising ones.
Like Leonard Shelby, we believe we have the full picture in that singular moment, the gun goes off, a spent shell falls to the ground, and a guilty man is punished. We will learn the truth, Leonard never will.
In Memento, Nolan sets the foundations for the key themes of his filmography: Control, Obsession and Perception.
Control is a vital element of Nolan’s films, control over oneself and the loss of it. A man with no memory struggles to retain control of his life - relying on notes he can’t remember writing and allies he can’t remember meeting - Leonard is a man completely lost.
Nolan films are heavily focused on men who are losing control; you will see it in Insomnia, you will see it in The Prestige, you see it in every single Batman movie, and Inception is the ultimate realisation of one man's loss of control. It’s the driving force behind all his work and, to Nolan, one of the most terrifying and fascinating parts of human existence. The loss of control over oneself is more destructive, in Nolan’s filmography, than the loss of control over external forces.
This is an important factor to consider, for all the violence inflicted by Leonard or because of Leonard, the most painful part of the film comes when Leonard realizes he has killed John G. over and over, but will never remember it. He will never seize that closure that he desperately hunts for; he will always be the victim of that fateful night.
As the film draws to its conclusion, Leonard chooses to continue as he was – unburdened by memory – and sets himself on a collision course with Teddy, a man who angered Leonard by shining a spotlight on the reality of his futile mission; that Leonard has already killed the John G he sought, and that he has killed other John G’s to give his life purpose. By dooming Teddy, Leonard has exerted some small measure of control, even if the act is ultimately an acceptance of the total loss of control over his own life and actions.
As is the case with all Nolan films, the protagonists are driven by all-consuming obsessions or inner-turmoil. The story propels forward due to this obsession, this methodical focus, the physical manifestation of this focus is in Leonard’s body tattoos. His drive for revenge is so all-consuming, so intertwined with his very being, that it is now part of his flesh.
When his reality is challenged by Teddy , he takes steps to ensure he can continue living this lie. The need to have this obsession, this purpose, is far more important to Leonard than finding real justice for his wife.
This is the most devastating part of the film, that we leave Leonard consciously embracing his sad and destructive fate. Willful self-deception, relieved that he will not remember his own lies. We know exactly where his actions lead him – we’ve been there already – but we can only imagine where it goes from there.
This leads us into the final key theme of the picture and, indeed, a lot of Nolan’s work: Perception. Memory is key to the movies reality, Leonard’s lack of memory has completely changed his perception of what reality is - as he states early in the film:
"Memory can change the shape of the room, it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, not a record."
Leonard’s entire existence is predicated on interpretations. His reality changes on a minute to minute basis. The notes, Polaroids and tattoos that he holds in such high esteem are literally his memory now and they too are distorted.
The film is played out through Leonard’s perspective, and thus his perception of things cannot be trusted, this manifests itself in the story in several ways (such as the quick frame of Leonard sitting in the psychiatric hospital instead of Sammy Jankis) but one interesting example, one that subtly proves that Leonard’s perception of reality is unreliable, and quick to alter, is in Teddy’s all-important license plate.
The license plate carved into Leonard’s leg reads: SG13 71U.
The license plate we see when Teddy is escorting Leonard as he leads Dodd, his unexpected target, reads: SG13 71U.
At the conclusion of the film, when we see Teddy again, and the creation of the license plate Fact: SG13 7IU.
And Leonard's note: SG13 7|U.
The 1 or the I is left vague, is this an intentional trick on Leonard’s part to leave the mystery open or an unintended deception on his part? In the process of telling the story through his eyes, reality has changed with his altered perceptions of it.
As the film reaches its conclusion there is no real way of knowing how much of Leonard’s notes are even real or just invented to reshape his personal reality, a necessity to continue feeding his obsessive need to feel like he still has control. Here, each of the core themes coalesce in a moment both chilling and tragic.
Stylistically, early Nolan had yet developed that strong, precise visual style that makes his works on par with Ridley Scott (that’s one rung below Kubrick, by the way) in its precision. The film feels a little looser in places, but it’s strong enough to catch glimpses of the style he and constant collaborator, D.O.P Wally Pfister, would develop. The limitations of the budget is the only thing that really holds it back.
While the film is not the impeccable visual experience of The Dark Knight or Inception, Memento is structurally incredible. What could have been obtuse and cumbersome in its design is perfectly constructed - by Nolan through B&W seques - cutting through the action, giving us a checkpoint, each sequence ending where the previous one began, slowly building up a complete picture of how Leonard ultimately came to kill Teddy.
The B&W segments eventually merge with the films main narrative becoming the final piece of the puzzle. It is a thoroughly satisfying build, never too complex or dense, we’re given a moment to breathe and ease back into the "backwards"-narrative without feeling overwhelmed.
Within these individual scenes, viewing them out of context, we believe we understand what is happening in the moment, but when sequenced together the picture crystalised. The editing of Memento actually aids the themes of the film; technique and text harmonise together. Along with Inception, Memento is Nolan’s best and most complete vision to date, creating truly sublime cinema. The very definition of a classic.
The performances are great throughout; Guy Pearce's central performance is fantastic, one of his best from a career full of fantastic, consistently underrated performances. Joe Pantoliano and Carrie Ann Moss give strong support, but the film is almost entirely Pearce's. He gives the film an extra weight and humanity that would have been lost among the narrative tricks with a lesser actor.
Memento stands alone as a classic; a cleverly plotted thriller that loses none of its potency on repeat viewings, only gaining layers of insight and intrigue in the process.
On watching Memento for the first time I had no idea that the man responsible for this would go on to direct the biggest film of all-time that wasn’t directed by James Cameron. It’s a testament to Christopher Nolan’s talents and drive that, despite this, he has not compromised his vision even as he transitions into blockbuster territory. This weekend will hopefully see him continue that trend.
Now, where was I?