In the spirit of Noirvember, I wanted to review a noir film, but didn’t want to review something that people outside of film culture would be unfamiliar with. Thus, in looking for neo-noir films as options, I remembered Memento and knew I had my movie. This is only Christopher Nolan’s second feature-length film, but it’s also the one that earned him his place in the spotlight. It is mysterious, tense, and is most well-known for being “that one movie that plays in reverse”. Since this is the first thing people remember, why not start there?
So a lot of people remember that this film plays in reverse not because it’s awkward, but because despite telling the story backward it is relatively easy to comprehend. This is done through repetition and a dual narrative. Every time a scene is played in reverse, it stops just shortly after the one before it began, giving the audience something to recognize to mentally place the scene in a timeline. The dual narrative comes from black and white segments that play in a normal chronological sequence and would only be a few scenes in a normally structured film. These scenes are spliced in between the reversed scenes playing in color. This eases the transition between reversed shots by giving your brain a moment to comprehend what you just saw, while also telling you about a minor but important character, Sammy Jankis.
The reason this film works so well in reverse is not simply due to good editing. Because the protagonist of this film cannot remember what happened to him before this moment, playing the film backward helps place the audience in his mindset. We are forced into his situation, trying to figure out what happened to him before so we can understand what he has already done.
The format this film is told in really had the potential to make or break this film, and through proper execution it absolutely made this film perfect. By telling us the story in reverse and making us work to understand what has happened, the story becomes absolutely heartbreaking toward the end (which is really the beginning). Realizing that everything Leonard does in this film is set up and not actually beneficial toward his goal is awful. In the end, this movie turns out to be less about him, and more about how two people on opposite sides of a conflict used him to their advantage.
On a completely different note, I thought Carrie-Anne Moss was great. She changes her attitudes in an instant. I get chills watching the scene where Leonard hits her and she comes back in the house telling her how Dodd did it to manipulate him into helping her. It’s so perfect because while she does legitimately change attitudes at the drop of a hat in various scenes, she doesn’t seem as convincing when she comes back in to talk about Dodd. This is great because her character is supposed to be lying and therefore won’t act out the scene as easily as she would, and she is making it less believable on purpose.
Another actor I thought did a great job was Stephen Tobolowsky playing Sammy Jankis. He got the part because he has personal experience with amnesia after he agreed to take an experimental painkiller for a surgery. This is very clear in the film, as Stephen was able to pull off these facial expressions that are hard to fake. A lot of people say you can tell an actor is good when they can cry realistically, but I’ve always found that something harder to fake is naïve innocence. Stephen pulls this off extremely well in playing Sammy, which makes watching Sammy’s story unfold more tragic and heart-wrenching the more it’s told.
Ultimately Guy Pearce’s performance made the film, and his portrayal of Leonard not only convinces us to feel sorry for him due to his inability to truly cope with his condition, but shows just how agonizing this disorder would be. Pearce is able to pull off looks of pure confusion, complete lack of recognition, and subtle embarrassment without overdoing it.
To be honest, this is one of the movies that got me interested in film in the first place. It came out when I was ten and it was the first movie I ever watched that left me with a feeling more than “that was fun, what can I do now?” This is the first film that got me into thinking about how films are made and why people tell stories the way they do. Thus, I understand that I am biased in saying that this is one of the best movies of the past twenty years, but I’m going to tell you that it is anyway. I absolutely love this movie for the structure, the acting, and for not adding too many elements outside of those two most necessary. There are a few scenes with cool lighting effects, and a couple of scenes with some music in the background strictly as ambient, mood-intensifying noise. Nothing in this film calls attention to itself unless necessary, and I love the way this movie is balanced. I highly recommend this movie to everyone, especially if you want to analyze story structure.
Favorite Scene (WARNING: This is the end of the film! If you have not seen the movie, PLEASE do not watch this scene!):