Before he reimagined the legend of Batman for the twenty-first century, firmly conditioning audiences to accept a grittier, grimmer version of the superhero story into the deepest, darkest recesses of their minds, English filmmaker Christopher Nolan manufactured and manipulated another set of movie memories. In a feature that pondered the permanence of our recollections, as well as the reminders – true or otherwise – used as aids in reinforcing and remembering, Nolan made a lasting impact with his acclaimed sophomore effort Memento.
At the time, Nolan was an aspiring filmic figure, with three shorts (1989’s Tarantella, 1996’s Larceny and 1997’s Doodlebug) and one full-length offering (1998’s Following) to his name. The former demonstrated his stylistic flourishes and narrative nuance; the latter, made on a miniscule budget with limited resources, emphasised his storytelling ingenuity and thrilling neo-noir tendencies. As a result of Following’s success, he was afforded the opportunity to make another feature. Based on a short story by his brother Jonathan –eventually published in Esquire magazine under the moniker Memento Mori – Memento would thrust Nolan to cinematic stardom.
From the outset, Nolan asserted his immense ambition, as evidenced in a stark opening sequence. In a static shot, a trembling hand clasps a Polaroid picture, the contents of which depict a blood-spattered scene. As moments pass, the hand begins to shake the photograph, with the image within starting to fade. Soon, it becomes a red outline, then a yellow amalgam of shapes, and finally a blank frame. When the paper is imbibed into the camera at a rapid pace and the snapshot erased, the inverse order of events becomes apparent. Then, amidst jumping guns and receding pools of plasma, the messy murder that inspired the photo is undone.
Although lasting mere minutes, the evocative introduction to Memento epitomises its clandestine yet contemplative undercurrent. The seemingly straightforward is proven to be unreliable, photographic evidence is shown to be at the fore of the storyline, and emphatic, incisive violence is established as an acceptable occurrence. All three elements recur as the fractured feature continues, manifesting in the film’s repetitive refrain. Accordingly, Nolan’s intricate offering is revealed as an excursion into the recurrent yet erratic nature of emotion, memory and humanity.
At Memento’s centre sits Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce, L.A. Confidential), the taker and keeper of the photographs in question. These visual aids supplement his inability to retain new data, courtesy of a traumatic event years – or months, or days – earlier. Indeed, no detail about Leonard’s life is proposed with certainty, other than his lack of short-term memory. To counteract the confusion caused when his cognisance of his current predicament ceases, he insists upon routine and habit – including cataloguing via photos and inking permanent reminders on his flesh – to compliment his natural instincts.
Two timelines – one in colour, the other a black and white recollection – relate Leonard’s confounding quandary. In the first, snippets of his quest to avenge a tragedy by finding a man called John G are pieced together. In the second, he speaks to an unknown caller, explaining the details of his condition and former existence. Each adopts a different relationship with time, with the vivid present assembled in reverse, and the monochromatic past following a chronological pattern. That the two are interspersed heightens the complexity of the presentation.
Although Leonard works and wakes alone in most instances, a host of other characters fall into his orbit. Each offers a new mystery, with a chasm forming between their apparent relationship to Leonard and the vastly differing reality. Shady contact Teddy (Joe Pantoliano, TV’s The Sopranos) seems to want to help, but Leonard’s photos and notes indicate otherwise. Supportive barmaid Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss, The Matrix) accommodates his requests, although glimpses of contempt pierce through her pleasant façade. Even the portly proprietor (Mark Boone Junior, The Thin Red Line) of the humble motel he calls home admits to using Leonard’s memory loss for his own gain. Then there’s his subjective recollections of his wife (Jorja Fox, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation), as well as his rehearsed account of Sammy Jenkis (Stephen Tobolowsky, Groundhog Day), a fellow sufferer of the same condition.
In weaving the tense narrative strands and escalating emotive threads into a rich, resonant and rivetingly performed tapestry of personal and psychological intrigue, Nolan transcends the confines of the crime thriller genre. Although the double-crossing, duplicity, disorientation and dichotomy of themes and motives ape familiar tropes and twists, the writer/director adapts the anticipated into a perplexing puzzle. To unravel the immersive, intelligent enigma, bits and pieces are slowly pieced together. Yet, as detailed as each aspect is – the specific staging of downtrodden settings, the contrast of the apparently upwardly mobile clothes and car of the protagonist with his unseemly company, and the purposefully elliptical inclusion and reiteration of information – Nolan does indeed sustain his memorable mystery until the film’s very end.
That the absorbing, entertaining film cemented his emerging status is far from surprising, with an avalanche of awards and nominations – Oscar recognition for best original screenplay among them – following. That the auteur then went on to work with bigger names, budgets and eventually properties, culminating in the epic trilogy of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, is also to be expected, with the scope, style, composition and cleverness of the feature verging on disarming. Indeed, as Nolan rides on a wave of success that has seen similarly multifarious efforts Insomnia, The Prestige and Inception added to his resume, Memento remains his heightened, harrowing and hypnotic staring point. That it lingers in the audience’s memory despite his subsequent achievements is not only a testament to its inventive concept or Nolan’s innovative abilities as a filmmaker, but to the feature’s underlying message.