Carrie-Anne MossChristopher NolanJoe PantolianoGuy Pearce
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
Keywords: Oscar-nominated, film noir
Country: USA
Actor: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Russ Fega, Jorja Fox, Stephen Tobolowsky, Harriet Sansom Harris, Thomas Lennon, Callum Keith Rennie, Kimberly Campbell, Marianne Muellerleile, Larry Holden
Format: 113 minutes
Website category: Oscars
Review date: 1 September 2010
That wasn't what I'd expected. Memento is disconcerting, both in what it's showing you and in the way its plot structure doesn't resemble that of ordinary movies. I don't just mean the interweaving non-linear stuff, incidentally, but the way in which our protagonist at first doesn't feel like a protagonist and in which you don't realise the ending was the ending until the credits roll.
My favourite thing about this film is the way it pulls us inside its world of anterograde amnesia. Not only does this syndrome really exist, but medical experts are falling over themselves to praise how it's being portrayed here. Time for some quotes. A Caltech neuroscientist called Memento "the most accurate portrayal of the different memory systems in the popular media." Meanwhile a mental health institute's director said it's "close to a perfect exploration of the neurobiology of memory," then continued with: "This thought-provoking thriller is the kind of movie that keeps reverberating in the viewer's mind, and each iteration makes one examine preconceived notions in a different light. Memento is a movie for anyone interested in the workings of memory and, indeed, in what it is that makes our own reality."
What this means is that Guy Pearce has brain damage. He can't make short-term memories. As another character says, it's as if he's living his life backwards. Pearce can think, act and make plans for what to do next, but he's got no way of knowing what he did ten minutes ago except by relying on guesswork or notes he'd previously written for himself. This would be startling even in a normal movie, but what Christopher Nolan's doing in addition here is telling Pearce's story backwards. We begin at the end and move backwards in time until we eventually end at the beginning. This is astonishing. It gives us too anteretrograde amnesia. We've no idea what happened yesterday, or even ten minutes ago, and hence we're trapped in an uncomfortable ever-moving present in which we know where Pearce's actions will lead him, but we know no more than he does about his background and immediate circumstances. It's a rather chilly, repetitive existence due to his inability to build relationships or let go of his remaining long-term memories, but it's a hypnotic experience and something you don't expect from a mere movie.
Note to self: recommend this movie to Dad. He used to be a clinical psychologist. He'll be fascinated.
For me, that's the most important thing I got from Memento. For two hours, I had a crippling mental condition. Now that's what I call expanding your horizons. As for the movie itself, it's dazzlingly clever but a bit cold. I liked everyone's performances, especially Guy Pearce, but I wasn't watching their story for the sake of spending time with the characters. It's film noir, really. The story begins with a murder and soon turns into a unique kind of investigation. You want to know what happened. Nolan has built some hefty surprises into his script, especially at the end, but personally I found it was primarily engaging my intellect rather than my emotions. However it would be unfair to whine on about this, because after all the film is so exceptionally good at what it does.
There are subtleties I haven't discussed yet in the structure. It has two timelines. The colour scenes are going backwards in time, while the black-and-white ones are set in the past and are going forwards until eventually they meet. This is again clever, but I can't pretend I picked up on it immediately and I'd probably have to watch the movie again to be able to say I'd properly followed the black-and-white timeline. Given all the other memory and perception problems we're being presented with, at the time it simply felt appropriate to be disorientated by cutting to an unrelated scene. After all, it's not every day you see the world in reverse.
As for the cast, it's not starry, but you probably know them better than you think. Guy Pearce used to be in Neighbours, but he's since made up for that with roles in films like L.A. Confidential, The Hurt Locker and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. He's outstanding here. It's a hell of a challenge for an actor, but Pearce captures all the facets of this complicated role, carries the movie in doing so and makes it look easy. He also used to be a bodybuilder, which might explains why he's in such impressive shape here. Apparently an actor in one scene here told Pearce to really attack him, which Pearce obediently did and left the man covered in bruises. Of the other actors, the best-known is probably Carrie-Anne Moss from The Matrix, doing her best to corner the market in spiky and slightly uncomfortable women. The other major role is played by Joe Pantoliano, who I thought I'd never heard of until I looked him up and found he'd been in The Sopranos, The Matrix, Midnight Run, Daredevil, The Fugitive and The Goonies. Yes, The Goonies.
There's an amusing story about the American distributors. No one wanted to touch it. They praised it, but thought it would be too confusing for audiences. Eventually it got distributed by the production studio that had financed it, which was a risky move that paid off in a 25 million dollar domestic gross, forty million worldwide and Oscar nominations for Film Editing and Original Screenplay.
This film is remarkable. It's the kind of thing I'd recommend as strongly as possible to anyone who's never seen it, while at the same time warning them that they wouldn't necessarily love it. It's not lovable. There's nothing here to cuddle. However it's also doing things to your head that I hope you'll never experience anywhere else, in a unique kind of script that gets taught in film school. It's practically inventing its own genre.