As film fans, there’s always a handful of films that we allow to pass us by. This usually isn’t at all indicative of their quality – sometimes, like with Memento, we’re just a little Late To The Party.
Long before Christopher Nolan took non-linear storytelling to arguably unnecessarily confusing heights with Tenet, there was Memento. It’s a film that remains every bit as respected and enjoyed over 20 years after its release, and for good reason. Put simply, it’s very good.
Memento‘s story follows Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a former insurance investigator with anterograde amnesia. With an almost non-existent short-term memory and no ability to form new memories after an attack on himself and his wife, Leonard is forced to start over every day in his hunt for revenge on his wife’s killer. Leonard is joined by Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) as he attempts to unravel the mystery of both his wife’s murderer (a man he only knows as “John G”) and the mystery of his own forgotten memories.
Part of Memento‘s brilliance lies in the framing of its story. Half is told in color scenes, which unfolds backwards, slowly revealing the memories Leonard has forgotten. The other half is told in black-and-white scenes, which show the earlier events of Leonard meeting Teddy for the first time. It’s a relatively simple gimmick, but it’s used to excellent effect.
Memento’s Unique Narrative Is A Wondrous Feat Of Filmmaking
One of Memento‘s biggest draw is its central gimmick. In truth, it’s a simple idea: the story is told by arranging the scenes backwards, reflecting Leonard’s own confusion at events. By having the audience slowly learn the facts in reverse, Nolan is able to effectively communicate the difficulty of Leonard’s condition in a particularly gripping and effective manner.
Memento‘s cast is small, but three excellent performances from its three stars only further elevates its brilliant narrative. At its heart, it’s the tale of a man who can’t trust his own mind, and how that outwardly affects his inability to trust anyone around him. The film’s final heartbreaking twist only confirms the film’s dark subtext, even though Leonard himself remains hopeful that he will ultimately retain his humanity.
In what was only Nolan’s second feature film, he proved himself one of the most capable and innovative directors in the world, which goes a long way toward explaining Memento‘s lasting popularity. It’s a film that takes a gripping narrative, an intriguing premise, and a solid gimmick and uses them each to complement one another, exemplifying Nolan’s vision even early in his career. Though it’s somewhat challenging to unravel, Memento makes watching its non-linear story a true delight and a thoroughly rewarding experience.
Summary: In many ways, Memento is a bleak and challenging watch. Its wondrously-told narrative uses a unique premise to become truly mind-blowing in its execution, evidencing Nolan’s remarkable filmmaking talent.
Highlight: The film’s final tragic twist is truly unforgettable, as all the pieces come together in a moment of heart-wrenching realization.