Nolan In-Review: Memento

On the lead up to Tenet, I thought it was due time to delve back into all things Nolan, to remind myself of why the infamous director is so… well… infamous. Sadly, due to some budgetary issues, and an unwillingness to go pirate, I was unable to watch Nolan’s first directorial outing Following, which lay accessible only behind a £30 price tag. No thank you. Therefore, the start of this In-Review series will launch with Nolan’s second foire to cinema.

Where money was of the essence of my experience with Following, time is here with the 2000 thriller Memento. It is a through-line for most of Nolan’s films, and it all started with the flash of a Polaroid. Here, Nolan wasn’t looking to make your run of the mill mystery: he wanted to perplex; he wanted to stand out; and he could do all of that and more by simple dialling back the clocks.

Memento, at its core, is a very simple premise. Fuelled by a lust for revenge, Leonard (Guy Pearce) is on a never-ending hunt for his wife’s killer. The catch is, since her death Leonard is unable to create new memories and is stuck in a surrounding where he can only trust his own scribbled notes on the back of Polaroid pictures, and the commandment-esque tattoos littered across his body.

The genius of Memento is in its reversal of the three-act structure. We start at the end and incrementally work out way back to the beginning, with each new segment revealing how Leonard got to where he was at the start of the last memory. The film does set itself into a routine of main segments, broken up with a chronological black and white storyline, and at times feels like it is checking another stage off its list, as it steadily works its way to the ending.

While the reversal could be labelled as the “gimmick” of Memento, and in today’s world may not be as game-changing as it would have appeared in 2000, underneath the hood is an impressive amount of work that went into leading its audience down its story path. Not only does is put you in the shoes of its short-term memory amnesiac, as you enter every encounter without the context of what came before it, but there is a story structure working in reverse, as much as there would have if played chronologically. In less-able hands, Memento could have fumbled its execution, resulting in a story that would only made sense upon completion. But with Nolan’s steady and unflinching vision, we can not only follow the story in reverse, but character arcs, red-herrings, and an unravelling mystery are as present as they would be in a traditional three-act film.

However, despite its genius, Memento’s juice can only be squeezed out with limited viewings. Unlike many of his succeeding films, Memento is a tightly packaged experience, which not only lacks any warrant for repeated viewings, but is also detrimental, as the once riveting structure reversal now feels formulaic, and the step by step narrative comes across as irritating.

Alas, the film that started to turn heads for the director was only the beginning – and what a beginning it was. Cementing Nolan as the guy who messes narrative, Memento is a monument to Nolan before he was Nolan. As a viewer in 2020, it can show any new Nolanite’s what the director can do on a smaller scale, with a grimier aesthetic, and handheld style that the director would soon abandon as he went on to make some of the biggest hits of the 21st century.           

Published by Aaron Bayne

I’m a film and video games journalist based in Scotland. I write stuff about them on my website, talk about them on my podcasts and film videos about them for BBC The Social.

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