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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 immersed in a quest to find the killer of his wife.

Review: Memento represents one of those rare occasions in my film-going life, where a movie has such an impact that it lodges with me not just in the hours after I leave the cinema, but days, weeks, months, and in some respects, even years after. By and large, it has stood the test of time too. It never fails to offer me something new when I revisit it, and it’s not just the film’s inherent cleverness and trickiness that wows me, but its powerful emotional resonance too.

Of course, discussion of the various merits of Memento has to begin with its undoubted “calling card” – its reverse chronological structure (although the film bypasses this to some extent with its carefully calibrated connective tissue and its framing black and white scene that balances out the backwards narrative). Films in the wake of Memento have flogged the reverse chronology conceit to death, but this remains one of the few with a purpose that genuinely warrants it. If told in chronological order, Memento‘s story would be relatively generic (which is the whole point), but by flipping it completely on its head, director Christopher Nolan uncovers a much more complex detective angle for his audience as story readers, plus the philosophical weight of the piece increases exponentially: classic identification structures are riotously deconstructed with the ostensible conduit-cum-hero, 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 an understandable and benign player.

By the film’s close, Nolan has spun such a whir of mise en abyme that nothing can be definitively established, from the narrative to the reliability of the narration, and Teddy’s assertion that Lenny may wilfully be reprising the same search over and over again (although Teddy fails to recognise the threat Lenny’s self-deception 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, and 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 personal favourite musical scores, a Mahleresque piece of work from David Julyan that beautifully articulates the poignant trauma of Memento‘s lead character. (March 2011)

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