Memento

Year of Release: 2000     Directed by Christopher Nolan.    Starring Guy Pearce, Joe Pantoliano, and Carrie-Anne Moss.

Of Nolan’s six mainstream releases, his debut film Memento was the last one that I saw.[1]  I did not have many expectations, since I had heard highest laudations, reserved praise, and outright disappointment, all from sources I respect.  Consequently, I was not predisposed to feel a certain way about the film.  The film engaged me on its own, and from the first scenes I was thoroughly engrossed with the story.  And with all due respect to those who found Memento unsatisfying, I believe that they misinterpreted the film.

One thing on which anyone should agree is that Memento foreshadowed Nolan’s entire directorial career.  As is in all his other films Nolan makes use of a specific technique to develop the story.  Whether it is the quick, intercut flashbacks in Insomnia; or the cutting between the parallel stories of Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale in The Prestige, there is always a unifying technique.  Here, Nolan tells the story in reverse.  Each sequence ends where the preceding sequence began.  By unfolding the film in chronological reverse, Nolan saves the most important puzzle piece, the onset of the events, for the climax of the film.  Occurring simultaneously with the color backwards story is a black-and-white story that connects to the rest of the film at that pivotal moment.  The final solving of the mystery, symbolized by the merging of the two stories, is foreshadowed by the opening scene as the viewer watches a color snapshot fade to black-and-white.

Nolan’s films generally have a brief important scene at the beginning of the film that is not fully explained until the end of the film, where everything falls into place.  This is similar to Inception’s opening with Cobb on the beach followed by his focus on the top; or the Joker’s opening line of The Dark Knight, which is defines the Joker’s actions, and is only fully realized by the film’s end; or the brief shots of blood soaking fabric that haunt Dormer at the beginning of InsomniaMemento’s opening scene has two important elements.  One is the aforementioned photo, and more importantly, the other is the man killed along with his final words.

Another opinion of mine concerning Nolan’s films would divide many people; however, I believe that all of his films have clear moral messages.  Whether or not those messages are solidly Christian is debatable, but I would argue that they all are.  Insomnia showcases the fallacy of ends-justify-the-means mentality; the Batman films unflinchingly and accurately hold a mirror up to evil, showing the difficulty and assiduousness it takes to defeat it; The Prestige shows the tragic results of devoting one’s life solely to fame and to revenge; and Inception shows the danger of living in fantasy and ignoring reality.  Memento tells the tragic story of Leonard (Guy Pearce) who devotes his life to revenge after his wife’s rape and murder.  It is concerned with taking revenge after a tragic death, like The Prestige, and like Inception, it shows the danger of ignoring reality and settling for what will bring instant gratification.

Leonard’s quest for vengeance is understandable.  His wife was raped and murdered, and as he rushed to help her, the assailant smashed his head into a mirror.  When he regained consciousness, he had brain damage that prevented him from forming new memories.  He could remember everything up to the moment of the assault, but anything that he encounters after that will only stay in his mind for a few minutes.  In order to remember people, events, or facts, he makes mementos for himself.  He takes snapshots of people and writes down information about them before it leaves his mind.  Important facts, he tattoos in various places over his body, such as “John G. raped and murdered my wife” backwards across his torso so he can see it every time he looks in a mirror.

Constantly reminding oneself of one’s sufferings is detrimental to forgiveness and freedom.  Although Leonard’s sufferings are great and he should not forget his wife or how she died, nursing his wounds and harboring hatred towards her attacker worsens his condition and puts him further from the truth.

Although Leonard wants revenge, he is not concerned with justice.  “My wife deserves vengeance,” (not justice) he tells an acquaintance.  When she inquires what good is revenge if he cannot remember it, Leonard is not deterred; he will simply get another tattoo, and his wife deserves vengeance regardless of whether or not he remembers it.  Her point was accurate; revenge is all about serving oneself and showing that one can be as cruel as his persecutor.  Justice is impartial and conforms to truth, fact, and reason.

Leonard has deluded himself by confusing justice and revenge as synonyms.  He believes that everything he writes down is a true fact, and the film backtracks showing how he arrived at those facts.  Because Leonard devoted himself to revenge, he became obsessed with making himself feel good.  When the truth and the facts became unpleasant he was reluctant to write them down, and as a result he forgot them quickly.  Importantly, the filmmakers are careful never to have Leonard use the word, “justice.”

The entire story gradually becomes more apparent, like putting together a puzzle, as the final image slowly forms from the original confusion and mystery of all the pieces.  There are subtle hints that Leonard is confusing himself and trusting the wrong people, as the audience learns who tries to help him and who uses him for their advantage.  Whether or not Leonard achieves his revenge is kept a mystery until the last moment of the film.  And when Nolan finally reveals it, the answer is shocking, disturbing, and an accurate portrayal of the tragic evil of revenge.

Content Advisory: Much obscene and profane language, some intense violence, brief rear nudity, scenes of tattooing, and fleeting drug use.                            MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A+


[1] Although Following is Nolan’s debut feature-length film, it is an indie film.  Memento is his first mainstream film.

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