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Memento

March 26, 2011

Memento (2000)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Actors: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano

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Synopsis: Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a man with chronic short-term memory loss, is engaged in a quest to find the killer of his wife.

Review: Memento is one of those rare, rare occasions in my film-viewing life that made such an impact on first viewing that it lodged with me not just in the hours after I left the cinema, but days, weeks, months, and in some respects, even years later. It never fails to offer me something new when I revisit it, and it’s not just the film’s inherent cleverness that wows me but its powerful emotional tow too. Of course, discussion of the various merits of Memento has to begin with its undoubted ‘calling card’ – its reverse chronological narrative. I know some films in recent years have flogged that conceit to death, but Memento is one of the few whose purpose genuinely warrants it. If told in chronological order Memento‘s story would be relatively generic, but by flipping it completely on its head, director Christopher Nolan uncovers a much more complex detective angle for his audience (and central character), and the philosophical potential of the piece increases two-fold. What is so great about Memento is how radical that potential actually is as classic identification structures are riotously deconstructed with the ostensible ‘good guy’ Lenny actually proving to be the film’s most lethal and ethically-dubious character, while the ‘bad guy’ Teddy is the closest the film comes to having a generally harmless and benign player.

By the film’s close, Nolan has spun such a web of mise en abyme that nothing can be relied upon, from the characters, to the story, and Teddy’s startling assertion that Lenny may wilfully be reprising the same search again and again (although Teddy fails to recognise the threat Lenny’s self-delusion represents to his own life) is a jaw-dropping revelation. This merging of genre with philosophy was something that Nolan was to come back to throughout the Noughties in intriguing and brilliant ways, from another psychologically-scarred detective case in Insomnia, to the magicians with their metaphysical one-upmanship of The Prestige, to the dream/reality dichotomy of Inception – it really is a majestic back-catalogue. Memento also represents career best work from its three actors – Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano – and it features one of my all-time favourite musical scores, a Mahler-esque piece of work from David Julyan that beautifully articulates the poignant trauma of Memento‘s lead character. (March 2011)

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