Memento: A Non-Linear Psychological Thriller

Guy Pearce in Memento. Courtesy of Newmarket Films.

Christopher Nolan’s sophomore feature, Memento, may confuse audiences with its non-linear narrative but it’s every bit as thrilling.

Christopher Nolan wrote his own screenplay for Memento while brother Jonathan Nolan penned the short story. They were writing their own versions at the same time. This resulted in Christopher Nolan finishing the film prior Jonathan Nolan’s story being published. The film sticks to the same non-linear form of storytelling that Nolan used in Following. In this instance, the color footage features scenes being in reverse of how they happen. The main title sequence is the only sequence in which they are showing the scene in reverse. The black-and-white footage is what is happening chronologically. One scene ends where the previous scene began. It is a film that audiences have to pay attention closely otherwise they will end up in some state of confusion.

Nolan wrote the film in the order that the audience is watching it. It’s certainly a harder feat to achieve rather than work with an editor in reworking the narrative. Would that be more feasible? Probably but who I am I to question Nolan’s methods. You know what they say–it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Anyway, in writing a noir, Nolan once again pays homage to the great films of the past. In making the lead an insurance investigator, it pays homage to Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, which remains the golden standard of the film noir genre.

The film follows former insurance investigator Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) as he suffers from anterograde amnesia. As a result of his condition, he has short-term memory loss and cannot form any new memories. Even though he can’t remember anything, he takes photos, writes down notes, and and even gets tattooed if it means having a way to retain information. It only goes so far in Leonard’s attempt to track down the men who both attacked him and raped and killed his wife, Catherine Shelby (Jorja Fox). The two storylines converge towards the end of the film when we find out the truth, including Teddy’s (Joe Pantoliano) role in all of this.

As a director, it’s amazing to see what Christopher Nolan is capable of doing when you give him a larger production budget. The film allows Nolan to work with cinematographer Wally Pfister for the first time. Both would work together through The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. Afterwards, Nolan would replace him with Hoyte van Hoytema. Anyway, the decision to shoot on a Panavision Gold II camera with an anamorphic lens works in Memento‘s best interest. Nolan continues working with composer David Julyan after first collaborating on Larceny. Julyan provides a synth-based score and gives the film different sounds for both the color and black and white footage.

In terms of the film’s script, I do have some major issues. Was it okay back in 2000? Maybe, maybe not. There are words that you just do not use. It is certainly the case for today but still, I would not recommend repeatedly using the R slur. Natalie’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) repeated use of it is the main thing that knocks the film down a bit for me. The use of slurs during one scene in particular didn’t stop Nolan from receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. But again, it was 2000-01 and that’s what went for the day.

On the technical side of things, Memento earned Dody Dorn an Oscar nomination for film editing and rightfully so.  When it comes to editing the film, this is the type of film where one must remember the order of things. If one thing is in the wrong place, the entire film would be out of whack. Case in point: pay attention to the opening titles because it’s going to be important later on during the film. Unfortunately, the 2018 Blu-ray re-release does not include the hidden feature that allows audiences to watch the film in a chronological order. After watching the film once already, I do plan a future viewing earlier in the day rather than a late night viewing.

I’m not sure if you could make this film today and have the same level of success. It’s unlike most films that studios are putting out in recent years. In watching Guillermo del Toro in conversation with Nolan on the Blu-ray, the question of finding an audience is something that came up during attempts to find a distributor. It’s a good question to ask because many American distributors found narrative to be a hard sell. Audiences felt differently as Nolan screened the film. The film is one of the few Nolan movies to be made independently. At the time of its release, Nolan was two years away from his first collaboration with Warner Bros. Pictures. Over the course twenty years later, Memento has developed a cult following.

CAST: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Stephen Tobolowsly, Harriet Sansom Harris, Callum Keith Rennie, Larry Holden

Newmarket Films released Memento in theaters on March 16, 2001. Grade: 4/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.