Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 7/14/10.
Before reviving the Batman franchise back from the dead and becoming one of top directors working in cinema. Christopher Nolan was just an unknown who had only made a few short films in the late 80s and early 90s. The British-born director made his first feature film called Following that was released in 1998 to cult success in the festival circuit. Two years later, Nolan would make another film that was more ambitious but also would mark the arrival of a new visionary who would help change the idea of what films could do that would be called Memento.
Based on the short story Memento Mori by Christopher Nolan's younger brother Jonathan, Memento tells the story of a man who had suffered a head injury as he is unable to create new memories. During this incident, the man tries to uncover a murder with help of old memories and individuals helping him out. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the film is a non-linear journey into a man's mind as it blends film noir, psychological drama, and all other sorts of genre into what some called one of the most original films of its time. Starring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Mark Boone Junior, Stephen Tobolowsky, Callum Keith Rennie, and Joe Pantoliano. Memento is a haunting, mind-bending film from Christopher Nolan.
Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) has just killed a man as he takes a photograph only to remember what he had just done. Yet, with a condition that makes him unable to create new memories. He is forced to take down notes, even on photos to investigate the murder of his wife (Jorja Fox). Helping him in the investigation is a guy named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) whom Leonard believes isn't trustworthy. Staying at a motel where he briefly chats with the manager Burt (Mark Boone Junior), he also gains contact and help from a bartender named Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) who helps him in finding information and such.
During the investigation, Leonard recalls old memories about a man named Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky) who suffered from the same condition Leonard is dealing with. During the investigation, he encounters a drug dealer named Dodd (Callum Keith Rennie) to get some information as it leads him to some confusing leads from Natalie and Teddy. Even as he tries to uncover memories about Natalie's boyfriend Jimmy (Larry Holden) while trying to figure out the puzzle he's created as he believed is being mislead. When it finally comes down to what happens, it leads to some shocking revelations about his own memories and what he wants to believe.
The film's premise is simple since it's about a man trying to find the man who killed his wife. Yet, it's more complicated by a protagonist who has no short-term memory nor has the ability to create new ones. In the process, he is confused and having to jot down notes and take photographs to uncover the leads of his investigation. Along the way, he encounters people who can lead him to find out the truth but what happens turns out to be more complicated since he isn't sure what to believe or who is telling the truth. At the same time, there's a subplot based on his memories about a man dealing with the same condition that Leonard Shelby encountered when he was just an insurance investigator.
The premise and journey is told in a non-linear structure where the black-and-white segments is Leonard recalling the memory about Sammy Jankis while leading up to the climatic moment where everything turns to color again. The scenes in color are sequenced in a backwards style of storytelling. What Christopher Nolan and his younger brother Jonathan did was follow what Jean-Luc Godard stated about story structure. There's a beginning, a middle, and an end. It's just that any of those three story doesn't have to follow in the same sequence. It could be told in the middle, ending, and then the beginning or some other way.
Nolan's screenplay is a mixture of genres ranging from psychological drama to film noir where some of the dialogue is presented in a noir-like fashion. At the same time, there's a bit of humor. While the journey following Leonard's investigation at times, can be hard to follow. The journey is a ride that is truly entrancing where the audience can figure out if he's being mislead or someone is steering in the right direction. The two main supporting characters in Natalie and Teddy are individuals who might not be who they seem once the film goes into the beginning or middle but they're not also trying to manipulate Leonard for their own gain. Still, they're shady but at least try to do some good.
Nolan's script is filled with memorable yet eerie characters while his script is definitely a mind-bender that plays with traditional structure. Yet, it is his direction that really gives the film a chilling feel. He lets the audience follow him while getting a chance to revisit scenes as they've begun while going back and forth to his phone conversation to the investigation. There's a sense of repetition that goes on so that Nolan can give the audience an idea of what it feels like to be Leonard Shelby. Even as the camera follows Shelby or creating sequences that allows the audience to figure out what is happening as they're on a backwards journey. Nolan has created what is truly a mesmerizing yet haunting film that is truly ingenious.
Nolan's longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister does excellent work with the visual look of the film with some colorful yet eerie photography for many of the film's reverse-chronological sequences. The black-and-white photography for some of the other scenes are entrancing in its tone as Pfister‘s work is superb. Editor Dody Dorn does fantastic work with the film's editing in creating tight sequences that move seamlessly while using repetition to emphasize the state of mind of its protagonist. Dorn's editing is truly amazing as it's the film's technical highlight.
Production designer Patti Podesta, along with set decorator Danielle Berman, does a very good job with the look of the motel rooms and homes that Leonard encounters as the film mostly takes place on location. Costume designer Cindy Evans does nice work with the costumes as it's mostly casual clothing while Guy Pearce wears the same suit for nearly the entirety of the film. Sound editors Gary S. Gerlich and Richard LeGrand Jr. do phenomenal work with the film's eerie sound mix to convey the film's noir-like tone. Even as they capture the atmosphere of the location that the film is at. The music score of David Julyan is wonderful for its subtle yet ethereal feel with just the use of synthesizers to explore the mind of Leonard Shelby. The music is another highlight in the film's technical field which includes David Bowie's Something In the Air for the film's closing credits.
The casting by John Papsidera is wonderful for its array of actors who stand out in small but memorable roles. Notable appearances includes famed comedy actor Thomas Lennon as Sammy's doctor, Kimberly Campbell as a hooker, Larry Holden as Natalie's boyfriend Jimmy, and Jorja Fox as Leonard's wife. Other small but notable roles come from Mark Boone Junior as a hotel manager who often converses with Leonard and Callum Keith Rennie as a shady drug dealer named Dodd. Harriet Sansom Harris is excellent as the wife of Sammy while famed character actor Stephen Tobolowsky is great as Sammy, a man who has the same brain disorder that Leonard has in a flashback sequence.
Joe Pantoliano is great as the smarmy yet sympathetic Teddy. A man who helps Leonard in the investigation while trying to lead him to the right direction. While there's a sleaziness to Pantoliano's character, there is also a nice subtlety and humor to the character as it's one of the actor's finest performances. Carrie-Anne Moss is also great as Natalie, a bartender who helps Leonard in his investigation while taking advantage of his brain disorder. Though she can play a character who is manipulative, she at least is a character that does have a good side as she does give Leonard some hope.
Finally, there's Guy Pearce in one of his finest performances of his career. In the role of Leonard Shelby, Pearce delves into a man who is confused as he writes down notes whether it's on a photograph or tattooing them in his body. Pearce's quiet yet chilling performance is definitely one for the ages as Pearce really dwells into the complex mind of Leonard Shelby.
When the film premiered in 2000 through various film festivals late in the year including Venice, Deauville, and Toronto. Buzz grew over the film while becoming a festival hit as it finally made its American premiere at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. After finally getting a distributor with Newmarket, the film became a smash hit as it gave Christopher Nolan lots of attention as well as offers from various studios.
Memento is an extraordinary yet hypnotic film from Christopher Nolan and company. Featuring superb performances from Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Joe Pantoliano. The film is truly a mesmerizing journey into a man's troubled mind while allowing the audience to come along for the ride. Fans of Nolan's work will definitely rank this very high as one of his best films. Though some might not be into Nolan's non-chronological approach or its noir setting, it is still a compelling and dazzling film that really goes against the conventionality of Hollywood. In the end, Memento is a chilling yet provocative film from Christopher Nolan.
Christopher Nolan Films: Following - Insomnia (2002 film) - Batman Begins - The Prestige - The Dark Knight - Inception - The Dark Knight Rises - Interstellar - Dunkirk - Tenet - (Oppenheimer) - The Auteurs #13: Christopher Nolan
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