Memento (2000) / Crime-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for violence, language, and some drug content
Running Time: 113 min.
Cast: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Stephen Tobolowski
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan (based on the short story, "Memento Mori", by Jonathan Nolan)
Review published May 30, 2001
Although one of the most overlooked gems for the year 2000/2001, Memento has gained in popularity by being one of the most unique "whodunnits" to come out in many a year. While it does fit the mold of the gimmick films that have been the norm for the last several years, Memento succeeds by making no bones about that fact, since the way the narrative is developed (each scene takes place the day before the last one) is a gimmick in itself. It's a great idea that works ingeniously, such that when all the pieces seem to be falling into place, the more in doubt things actually are.
The film starts off with a murder of a man named "Teddy" (Pantoliano, Ready to Rumble) at the hands of the protagonist, Leonard (Pearce, Rules of Engagement). Leonard suffers from a rare mental condition that causes him to lose all short term memory of things that may have happened to him as little as ten minutes before. Leonard hasn't always had the condition, which developed after the rape and murder of his wife. He uses Polaroids, handwritten notes and tattoos in order to help him remember the search for the killer and the vengeance which he seeks to implement upon him.
Memento, while unique in its style in many ways, should probably be seen as more of an evolutionary film rather than a revolutionary one. Within the confines of the plot, Memento is, at its core, a standard thriller, with plot manipulations that are predictable within the usual parameters of the genre. Where Memento separates itself from the rest is in the way with which writer/director Nolan (Insomnia, Batman Begins) has chosen to tell his story, through a series of flashbacks upon flashbacks of a man that can't remember any of them. Instead, he trusts his judgment based on the notes and photos that he takes on a daily basis, building a case for a murder using the facts and feelings that may occur to him at any given time to help him from day to day.
Memento is also not revolutionary in that it is similar to other films, including similarly complex thriller which came out around the same time, The Pledge. We follow the storyline from a nearly first-person perspective of a man who, from all appearance, has the inability to make sound decisions, and question whether what we see are facts, or merely the delusions of a man who doesn't know any better. It's an esoteric exercise to be sure, and may not appeal to many looking for more standard fare. However, even within its subgenre of thrillers, Memento is clearly superior to most, with solid performances from Pearce and Pantoliano, and a very knowing script.
While Memento will clearly be overlooked in a populist sense, how good the film is just a tad over-hyped by critics and those who actually do see it because of its style. In the end, while the narrative device it employs is ingenious, and directing and script solid, there are a number of cheats in the story during the flashbacks of things that could not have been remembered given the condition as explained in the film, the largest of which is the obvious cheat of a man who can remember that he has a memory problem. I suppose this last point can be explained and argued over ad nauseam, but never proven one way or another.
Memento is highly recommended for anyone who likes to be thrown for a loop while watching a mystery and not have everything wrapped up in a tidy bow by the end of the film, a la Jacob's Lader and its brethren. It's a quality film that is complex and intelligent enough that, even if you were to guess correctly the ending long before, you probably didn't guess how it would get there eventually.
Memento is one of those films you want to watch again right after viewing it. That's quite fitting for a film about a man that constantly views and reviews things he's seen before to make sense of it all. Easily one of the best thrillers of recent years, and one you aren't likely to ever forget.
©2005 Vince Leo