When it comes to films that practically require repeat viewings, Memento (2000), directed by Christopher Nolan in his pre-Batman days, is perhaps one of the best to come to mind. It’s a neo-noir with a revenge-driven protagonist that has an irresistible premise: former insurance investigator Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is on the hunt for his wife’s killer in San Francisco, but during the incident, he developed amnesia that makes it impossible for him to form short-term memories.
It’s a twist on the tropes found in noir films, putting Leonard at a distinct disadvantage wherein even if he finds a clue that points him in the right direction, he’s not going to remember it by the time the next conversation has started. Despite this, Leonard has an unwavering belief in a provable, objective truth. During Leonard’s investigation, he collects mementos that will help jog his memory from copious notes, pictures; even going so far as to tattoo reminders on his own body.
The story unfolds through two timelines, each one a different chronology with the color segments in reverse and the black-and-white representing the in-order chronology. During the color sequences, the events leave the viewer feeling just as misplaced and confused as Leonard as he finds himself in the middle of a chase with no clue as to whether he is the one doing the chasing or the chaser or conversations that he has repeated numerous times. Memento is one of those movies that happily challenges the viewer to unravel what is going on right up until the very end, dropping the subtlest of clues along the way.
Leonard’s belief in fact is challenged throughout Memento as those around him have their own agendas and might be hurting or helping his investigation. There’s bartender Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss) who seems friendly and Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) a corrupt cop who Leonard deems as untrustworthy from the start, but nothing is what it seems as facts and memories are both subject to distortion and bias and Leonard’s condition can be taken advantage of.
Guy Pearce plays Leonard’s condition as completely believable, something that could exist in the real world and treated with copious notetaking instead of pills. He is in many ways the prototypical noir protagonist: questioning the motivation of those around him while doggedly pursuing the facts, though his inability to retain said facts makes him susceptible to manipulation. He’s someone who compensates for these deficiencies and that’s what makes the character so fascinating to watch.
Carrie-Ann Moss and Joe Pantoliano play layered characters as well, who may be telling the truth or feeding Leonard lies with it being difficult for the viewer to distinguish which is which without watching the scenes fully play out in the right order. Moss’ Natalie is someone who can exhibit great warmth one minute and venom the next, while Teddy (Joe Pantoliano sporting a terrific mustache and big glasses) is more apt to screw with Leonard than anything.
Memento is a hard film to discuss linearly, not just because of the back-and-forth nature of the way Nolan directs, but also it’s such a great movie you wouldn’t dare to spoil it for those who have yet to watch it. It’s easy to see how Nolan went from Memento to making Inception (2010) a decade later, only someone so talented could have pulled off such challenging, intellectual films that reveal more with each viewing.
There are so many layers to Memento and it’s such a strong film considering it was only Christopher Nolan’s second time directing. The circular, twisting narrative and engrossing neo-noir atmosphere make Memento easily one of the most memorable of Nolan’s films. Nolan certainly went onto bigger things in terms of Hollywood success, but Memento is still a high watermark that few neo-noirs in the past twenty years can even come close to.