Memento is a film that is difficult to review. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, that person will want to go into not knowing anything. Nothing. You will just want to experience it without knowing much about it. Don’t even watch a trailer. However, Memento is one of my all-time favorite movies. An instant classic from the start of the new millennium from my second favorite director of all-time: Christopher Nolan. (John Woo is my all-time favorite, btw).
There are a couple of things which can be said about the plot. Guy Pearce (this is like the 3rd Guy Pearce movie I’ve reviewed already…) stars as Leonard, or Lenny as his buddy Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) refers to him as. Lenny was just an average Joe who worked for an insurance agency investigating insurance claims. After investigating and denying a claim he gets a big promotion and life seems great. Until that one night when two men broke into his house, killed his wife, and then threw his head against the wall causing brain damage. Now, Lenny has short term memory loss. He can’t make new memories. He knows who he is, where he’s from, and remembers everything about his life up until his wife’s murder. Without the ability to live a normal life he has vowed revenge and, by keeping track of people and places through Polaroid pictures, and tattooing vital information to his body, Lenny seeks revenge for his wife’s death and for his condition.
The plot itself is remarkably simple. However, it is through Christopher Nolan’s screenplay and direction that the movie becomes complex. The brilliance in the film’s execution is that the story is told backwards. The first scene of the film is actually the last scene and vice versa. The opening shot to Memento as the credits flash on the screen is, for me, one of the most brilliant opening shots. Lenny is holding a fresh Polaroid, but scene is played backwards, like an old VHS tape on rewind. So, you have the picture, but as he fans the picture, it fades to white. Genius.
This type of brilliant execution makes the viewer feel like Lenny must feel. We are just taken scene to scene with no idea why Lenny is where is or what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. In short, we are just as lost as he is. Several plot twists come as the movie moves along until the shocking ending…err beginning…And, it is honestly shocking. Not some stupid plot twist thrown into it. The final twist makes complete sense especially after a repeat viewing.
Now, this is one of those movies that a viewer can easily get confused and frustrated with. I still remember my first viewing and, trust me, stick with it. By now we all know what a genius Christopher Nolan is. Stick with it, you will be glad that you did. Once you get used to the execution it stops being confusing and frustrating and you feel the sense of panic and helplessness as the protagonist. Plus, if you quit watching, you don’t get to see what happens right before the credits roll. And, you’ll immediately want to watch the film again to see what clues you missed. I can only imagine how many people when this film was in theatres went to a 4:00 show and then turned right back to the box office and to get a ticket for the 6:45 show!
For me, this movie is just as much about the human condition as it is about Lenny’s mental condition. We are all trying to find our own meaning to our lives. We all must have a purpose for living or else what’s it all for if for nothing? Some of us lie to ourselves while others just remember what we want to remember. When the truth isn’t good enough, or it interferes with our purpose or worldview, we simply ignore that truth or make up our own truth. There is a brilliance in this film that goes beyond just the simple plot and clever execution. This is a film about humanity as much as anything else.
Memento gets an A+