The Christopher Nolan Retrospective Part 2: Memento

The Christopher Nolan Retrospective continues! Last time, we delved into the twisty potential in Nolan’s debut feature Following and how it contains the themes that would eventually become benchmarks in all his work. Now, we move on to one of Nolan’s most lauded films, said by many to be his masterpiece, Memento.
Before we begin, a few notes: Again, I’m going to be skipping the Batman movies for now and I’ll be saving them for a special Dark Knight Trilogy special at the end of this retrospective that also ties into The Dark Knight Rises, so we’ll get to those much later.
Secondly, I did my best to avoid spoilers in my analysis of Following but it’s pretty much impossible to really delve into the themes and structure of Memento without getting into incredibly major spoilers. So if you, for some reason, haven’t seen Memento yet and you’re just delving into this marathon, do yourself a favor and see it before reading this.
With that being said, let’s dive right into The Christopher Nolan Retrospective Part 2: Memento.

“I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there. Do I believe the world’s still there? Is it still out there?”

Following may have been the movie that introduced the world to Christopher Nolan’s talent, but Memento was the one that showed the world that he wasn’t just another clever screenwriter. He was the real deal. With Memento he quickly became one of the most buzzed about new talents in the biz, landing him a project with Al Pacino in the lead (More on that in the next installment). Memento wasn’t just one of the most original movies of the 2000s, and it wasn’t just another twist-ending thriller (Which was becoming the big “it” movie after the success of The Sixth Sense); Memento was also a tragedy that bordered ever so closely on Shakespearean levels.

Memento follows the story of a man named Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) who is under the worst sort of predicament. His wife has been raped and murdered by a lowlife criminal known only as John G., and he is intent on tracking John G. down and getting the revenge he deserves for ruining his life. But that’s not the worst of it. When he attempted to save his wife as she was being raped, he was delivered a brutal blow in the head that caused serious brain damage. Because of this, he now has short term memory loss and can no longer create new memories. That isn’t going to stop him from finding the guy though, but it will definitely complicate things further on his pursuit for vengeance.

Given the daunting task of telling a movie with a character with short term memory loss, Christopher Nolan ended up devising a brilliantly original structuring method to give audiences the confusion and paranoia of short term memory loss: Reverse chronology. Reverse chronology isn’t totally new, in fact I’m pretty sure it was used in a few movies before Memento, but few have employed it in such a stylish and intelligent manner. The film was, of course, told backwards as each scene in the thickening murder plot goes further and further back, revealing more and more details that change the course of the film. And these scenes are intercut with yet another plot-line that is told in black and white (Not unlike the timeline method he previously used in Following). The scenes in color begin at the technical “end” of the chronology, while the black and white scenes begin in, well, the technical “beginning” of the chronology.
Thanks to the smart melding of reverse and normal chronology, Nolan is able to make each scene still build off the other, as we slowly start to realize that at some point the two plotlines are going to meet the closer they get to each other. The suspense is still there, and each scene still feels like it leads into something important, even though we already “technically” know the end result. Like I said in my Following article, Nolan always has a good reason for each time he uses untraditional structuring, and he never wants to be confusing for the sake of confusion. He generally wants te audience to follow along.
But the main reason why the semi-reverse chronology works so well is because it fits the material. Also like I said in the Following article, Nolan isn’t merely using non-linear structure just for the sake of being clever, and this is doubly true for Memento. Usually, when you watch a non-linear movie a part of you feels sort of left out because of the state of confusion that the non-linear structure generally brings; like you’re being left out of the club and the movie is keeping secrets from you. And Memento is mostly no different except for the fact that the main character is just as much out of the loop as the viewer is. Because of his short term memory loss, Leonard Shelby is just as confused as the audience is, creating an emotional through-line that is able to make us want to make sense of the mystery as much as Leonard does.
However, the same is true, perhaps even more so, vice versa. It isn’t just that Leonard is just as confused as the audience, giving us a way to connect with the structure. It’s also there to make the audience as confused as Leonard. In a traditionally structured film, there would probably be no way to really put viewers in the mindset of a man with short term memory loss because it’s not like the audience suffers the same condition. It’s practically impossible, something that not even the best actors can probably pull off. But with the non-linear structuring, when we see Leonard wake up in a strange woman’s house, we’re just as confused as he is on how he got to that point and what he’s doing there, and we’re just as invested in figuring out the why as he is.
So having to act out that confusion and paranoia would be impossible to convey in a traditionally structured movie, but how does Guy Pearce manage with the non-linear structure? The answer: Tremendously. Guy Pearce doesn’t play up his condition too much and as a result gives an incredibly subtle performance that makes Leonard a real character rather than a spaz who can’t remember anything. He’s calm and collected in just about every scene he’s in, especially with his stream-of-consciousness narration that describes everything in the most matter-of-fact way humanly possible. For example, re-watch the movie (It’s on Netflix Instant, you know) and listen to Pearce’s delivery of the line “Oh, looks like I’m chasing this guy. No wait, he’s chasing me.”
I’ve heard a few people complain that having such a cool, confident character doesn’t fit with the short term memory loss plot point. Roger Ebert himself, thought it was a plot hole that a guy with short term memory loss who is supposed to have his last memory be the sight of his dead wife can be able to remember his own condition. And indeed, Ebert does bring up a fair point. However, I was never taken out of the movie from this because of how well Pearce establishes this character. He plays Leonard as cool and confident because that’s the only kind of guy who would be able to even carry out a quest for revenge while still retaining short term memory loss. Does it stretch the realms of plausibility? Yes it does, but Guy Pearce embodies the character so well and Christopher Nolan approaches the material with such skill that you buy into it in the first frame.
Revisiting the film, I was struck by the amount of small details and nuances that Nolan and Pearce bring to Leonard that makes him feel fully realized and his condition as real as humanly possible. My favorite of these tiny touches is when Leonard is walking into the motel he’s staying at and he slams into the door, unaware he was supposed to pull it rather than push it. Small details like that go a long way with subsequent viewings, and the best of these in Pearce’s performance is his face. As calm and collected as Leonard is, Pearce delivers these brief moments that show pain and vulnerability with the most subtle movements in his face. The way his eyes move, the way his lip would kind of twitch or tremble or something when his memory seems to “reset”. Hell, just his blank stare is able to convey the confusion and almost cluelessness of his character to incredible effect.
Last time, I brought up how each Christopher Nolan movie seems to center around one of two themes that he seems to be obsessed with. With Following, it was the realtionship between order and chaos (Something that will be brought up again in the Batman Trilogy discussion). With Memento, we get something that Nolan is perhaps even more obsessed with: The idea of a subjective reality. There were hints of this in Following, but this theme becomes the center point of Memento and a lot of Nolan’s later work.
Think of it like this: How can we ever know if there is even such a thing as an objective reality? We all see everything through the lens of our own mind, so how can we know for certain what the objective truth is? Can there even really be facts, because of this? Can the mind be trusted? This idea gets into deeper territory when you start to add this complication to the mix: If reality is something that can be shaped through subjectivity, then can we end up shaping our own realities with just a single “false” idea? If that is the case, is that idea even really false to begin with? After all, as long as it’s real to you, it’s real, period. Do our actions still have meaning in such a world?

Memento is entirely about the idea that your mind can shape your reality. Because Leonard can’t keep all his memories, he externalizes them in order to preserve them with the usage of photos, notes, and permanent tattoos that all detail the facts about his pursuit for the killer. Leonard said himself earlier in the movie that memory is an unreliable thing, and the only thing you can count on is the objective reality: The facts, the evidence, the notes, etc. But what happens when he externalizes his memories, and those become his facts. What happens when the subjective reality becomes the objective reality? What happens when instead of memories being supported by the facts, objective reality is shaped by memory?

This is especially prevalent in the subplot involving Sammy Jenkins (The great Stephen Tobolowsky), who had a similar condition to Leonards, only it seemed to exist on a mental state rather than a physical state. Leonard tested him to see whether Sammy could still learn things through instinct and conditioning rather than memory by using a test to see whether he’d stop picking up a shocked object through said instinct. This brings us to the idea that someone can be conditioned to learn something, but can a man be conditioned to, say, become someone else?
This leads us to the final twist, in which we learn that Leonard has already found and killed the man responsible for his wife’s rape an entire year ago. On top of that, she never even died when she was raped by the mysterious criminal. She did, however, die by Leonard’s own hand when it is revealed that the man known as Sammy Jenkins was actually a con man who was given features from Leonard’s own life. Sammy wasn’t the one that tragically killed his own wife with an insulin overdose, rather it was Leonard who overdosed his own wife and conditioned himself to place it under a different man’s name.
There is no mystery to solve, no John G. to find; just the fleeting satisfaction of revenge, an unsolveable puzzle that could give his life meaning. And after all, what does it matter to him? He has no reason to live now that he can’t create new memories and his last memory was the seemingly dead body of his wife. All he really has to live for is avenging his wife, and finally obtain a brief moment of “peace” even if it inevitably will be taken away. It doesn’t matter to him what the objective reality is. It doesn’t matter that his wife actually survived, that he actually killed her, that he already caught the real perpetrator, because that stuff can never be real to him anymore. The only thing real to him now is the pursuit of vengeance.
It is because of this that I personally think that Leonard is an incredibly tragic character. Forced to repeat the same cycle of revenge forever, creating his own unsolveable puzzle just so he could give him a purpose for the rest of his life, who knows how long he will continue this endless loop blissfully ignorant of the objective truth? Leonard Shelby isn’t just a tragic hero because he will forever be stuck in this loop, he’s a tragic hero because he is an embodiment of something that all of us have done and will continue to do in our lives: Lie to ourselves just so we can be happy.
Memento is one of Christopher Nolan’s masterpieces and in my opinion his second best film (We’ll get into my personal favorite much later). It is much more than just an incredibly clever thriller, like Following was (Even though there were small moments of insight in that film, which I discussed). This is also a deeply human, if somewhat emotionally cold story about what we do to give meaning to our lives, the lengths we will go to achieve that sense of purpose, and that sometmes, purpose is nothing more than an outright lie.

It’s easy to see how many of the biggest names in Hollywood suddenly found a great interest in Christopher Nolan after Memento. But what happens when Christopher Nolan is given a task that is perhaps just as if not more difficult than making a movie about a man with short term memory loss: Directing a movie that is a remake of another foreign film, stars big name actors, and takes away something that makes Nolan’s films special: His writing. Next time, we’ll talk about Insomnia, directed by, but not written by Christopher Nolan.
That is all. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can do so by clicking the following links: CinEffect on BlogSpot, CinEffect on Tumblr, my own personal tumblr, and my Twitter account @CGRunyon where you can follow me for more reviews, articles, and other random thoughts about what I like. Also be sure to follow my two friends who help out with CinEffect with their own reviews or podcast cohosting sessions: @TBBucs20 & @ThatGuyBrady.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta cover these damn windows. The light…it never ends!
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