Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) is fascinating for many reasons, the most obvious being its reverse order that brings the viewers back to the beginning. Or is it the ending? That this was only Nolan’s second film proved this guy is a master storyteller, which is probably why Warner Bros. went to him to resurrect Batman after Joel Schumacher had buried it under layers of campiness in Batman and Robin. The protagonist of Memento probably sees himself as a hero since he is trying to avenge the death of a loved one, but as Nolan would shows in his Dark Knight trilogy sometimes revenge is not black and white.
I first saw the film while I was studying at the University of Sherbrooke and it was being shown in the local film club as part of a double feature along with Nolan’s first movie Following, which seen together can spark interesting conversations about morality. One film has a character following strangers and getting into all sorts of trouble. The second is about a mentally damaged man walking the streets with deadly intentions and no medical supervisions with violent results. Of course the fact that his story is told through a fractured narrative gives you an inkling of what he is going through, making it even more of an enjoyable experience than if it had been told in a straightforward way.
The reason for the story’s jumbled narrative is the fact that protagonist Leonard (Guy Pearce) suffers from a unique form of amnesia that leaves him unable to build any new memories. You talk to him for five to ten minutes and he forgets whom you are. Conveniently enough he does remember how he came to suffer from this situation. While fighting off two men who raped and killed his wife (Jorja Fox) he suffered a sever head trauma. During the struggle he managed to kill one attacker, but the police don’t believe there was a second man. Since Leonard used to be an investigator for an insurance company he sets off to find his wife’s killer.
His mental condition is of course a major roadblock in his quest for justice, but Leonard finds ways around it such as covering his body with tattoos of important names and clues. When he is pressed for time he takes a Polaroid and writes important information underneath. A Polaroid is quite fitting, since the image, like Leonard’s memory, is time sensitive and needs to be shaken to get a better picture. Leonard has to repeat every one of those facts to people he meets around town such as bartender Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss) and possible ally Teddy (Joe Pantoliano). Of course because of his condition Leonard has no way of knowing if he has explained this to them for the 10th or 100th time, or if they are who they say they are at that moment.
Leonard’s mind is so fractured he could find himself in a room with a beaten up man with no recollection he is the one who was administering the beating mere minutes ago. As if that was not complicated enough, the story advances at two speeds, one presented in black and white with Leonard in his hotel room, and one in colour presented in reverse chronological order as Leonard hones on in his wife’s killer. The two strands eventually meet somewhere in the middle, but as to where this story ends and begins is a very good guess. Either way, imagine the many planning stages this must have required, from the page of Nolan’s screenplay, to the disjointed editing of Dody Dorn. Forget about a plot twist, this thing has a plot maze.
On the film’s limited edition DVD there is an option to see the events in chronological order, which I believe would defeat the point. If Leonard is never sure of what is going on, why should the audience?
This raises an important thematic issue. Leonard always remembers he wants justice, but what if were to wake up at the age of 60 and not remember he found the killer decades ago? Even worse, what if he is not remembering the attack the way it happened in the first place? Quests for revenge have a tendency to cause a lot more harm than good, so we are not off to a good start if the man doing the avenging might be working with unreliable information.
To me the biggest question of Memento is not if Leonard get his revenge, but how is he allowed to walk the streets unsupervised? Then again if he were in a hospital Nolan would not have been able to start building this beautiful puzzle.