A Film by Chritopher Nolan
Screenplay by Christopher Nolan from a story by Jonathan Nolan
The new film by Christopher Nolan, who adapted the screenplay from a short story by his brother Jonathan, is an intriguing first effort that shows great promise. A noir thriller in the tradition of Rudolf Mate's D.O.A. and Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, it also owes considerable debt to recent films like David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner and Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects.
The noir genre is one of the easiest to parody and hardest to carry off effectively. The typically "anti-heroic" protagonist has to be able to engage our interest without being sympathetic, and the film can't rely on our identification with the main character in order to ensure our involvement.
Typically, makers of noir films have employed convoluted, intriguing plots as a way of interesting us in stories about people we may not like. Often a plot device, like the "double indemnity" clause of insurance policies, or the slow-acting poison of D.O.A. acts as the hook around which the plot pivots - which also provides the element of suspense for the audience.
Almost all noir involves the idea of the double-cross - the sense that characters and situations are not what they appear to be. Trying to figure out what is actually going on provides the most direct connection between audience and film.
The plot of Memento hangs on a rare kind of brain damage condition in which a person can remember their past clearly up to the point of an injury, and but is unable to form any new memories after that point. Such a person lives in an "eternal present" cut off from any sense of the ongoing continuity of his or her own life. Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), the central character suffers from this disorder, as he tells an unidentified caller on the telephone, due to a blow to the head he received while trying to rescue his wife from a brutal and ultimately fatal attack, his last clear memory.
Shelby tries to keep the utterly disjointed events of his life on track by keeping notes, by taking instant photographs which he annotates, and by covering his body with tattoos which record important information. He is, we discover bit by bit, on a mission to find his wife's murderer and revenge her.
The noteworthy innovation of this film is in the way it seeks to present its story, in a series of disjointed, overlapping episodes beginning in the present - at the end of the tale - and moving backwards in time, to gradually reveal the circumstances that lead to the final - and also initiatory - act. We start out knowing what the final action of the drama is, but it is only through the fitful unfolding of the story that we try to understand its meaning.
And that is the subtext of the film, and one of its most fascinating aspects. The script actually details, in several brief asides, philosophical questions about memory and meaning, about the imaginary continuity of our experience that seems to give it a substance beyond the purely random. Then the events of the film play with that notion, suggesting that even as we in the audience search for the "meaning" of a specific sequence, try to fit it into what we already know, our sense of its significance keeps changing as more points of view are revealed.
So, in addition to a ripping yarn, we are treated to what amounts to a meditation on the nature of existential consciousness. It was Sartre who suggested that events have no intrinsic significance, that "meaning is something we add on afterwards." And Memento takes that premise to an extreme, to confront us with an experience - albeit vicarious - of the dilemma created by awareness of the split between phenomena and the consciousness of phenomena.
Nolan creates plenty of suspense by keeping us in the dark about the identities and motives of nearly every character in the film. By telling the story in reverse, from Shelby's fragmented point of view, he creates an ideal device for keeping us attentive and involved. We join Shelby in his search for the clues that we expect will reveal the meaning of the events we have witnessed. Like him, we can't "remember" what happened just before the events we are watching unfold. Ultimately, Nolan offers a further point of identification by refusing to allow us any sort of satisfactory resolution.
As in most noir films, the complicated plotline does not hold up to careful scrutiny. There are "holes you could drive a truck through," as they say. But in this case, these hardly detract from the experience of the film, which is finally based not so much on the coherence of its story as on the fascination of trying to piece it together. The fact that it doesn't quite fit is, in one sense, perfect: completely in keeping with whole tone of the story and Shelby's distorted point of view.
Nolan's script is polished and confidant. He makes a couple of little mis-steps, carrying things just a tiny bit too far, but for the most part the dialogue is intelligent and natural, making the far-fetched concept of Shelby's condition seem perfectly credible. Modern attempts a noir often get bogged down in trying to copy the "hard-boiled" manner of the original novels and films in the genre. Nolan avoids that pitfall - finding the effectiveness that lies in the economy of the words, letting the attitude behind them make the point, as much as what is actually said.
Nolan is aided by a talented cast of players. Pearce, who has the underwear-model good-looks of a Brad Pitt clone, is the weakest link in the chain, but Shelby's mental condition makes any lack of affect, any inconsistencies of characterization seem like they could actually be character choices. It is in keeping with the line of the story that Shelby should be enigmatic, contradictory, variable from scene to scene - since he himself has no memory of what sort of image he was trying to project just a few minutes earlier and is inclined to believe that he is whatever people tell him he is.
Carrie-Anne Moss, as Natalie, counterbalances Pearce effectively as a typical noir woman, manipulative and selfish, canny, sexy and a bit vulgar. Her pivotal scene, in which she blatantly capitalizes on Shelby's weakness, knowing he won't remember, is a small triumph of dark characterization. The contrast between what she reveals then and the character she has built in previous (but chronologically later) scenes is one of the most effective emotional hooks the film offers.
Joe Pantoliano plays Teddy, a character whose true identity is never exactly clear. Shelby vacillates between trusting him as a friend and mentor and suspecting him as a tormentor and enemy, and Pantoliano's performance gives plenty of clues to ground wavering conviction in both directions at once - for Shelby, and for the audience. On the one hand flippant and apparently sympathetic and on the other suspiciously evasive and controlling, Pantoliano adds to the elements that keep the story moving and the audience vaguely disoriented.
Mark Boone Junior, as Burt, the desk clerk at the Motel where Shelby is staying, does a lot with a relatively small part, and creates an effective counterpoint by providing a humorous take on events as well as the only character who is exactly what he seems. His solid ordinariness gives the wild ride of the film one truly consistent element that seems to anchor it in the real world.
As a visual film-maker, Nolan is effective. He and his Directors of Photography, an uncredited Jordan Alan, and Wally Pfister, use the camera as a participant in scenes as often as an observer. The tight framing and mobility of hand-held cameras gives the action an immediacy and a claustrophobic feel that fits well with Shelby's perspective.
At several points the character refers to the persistence of phenomena (in contrast to the transience of his consciousness) by remarking that when you close your eyes the world doesn't actually disappear - but thanks to the camera work our point of view is so tightly constricted that we begin to feel it might.
There is a lot of jump-cutting and quick editing, and once or twice the visual technique comes dangerously close to the style of music video, but each time Nolan is able to move back before falling into cliche. The opening sequence, run in reverse, where an instant photograph fades - instead of developing - before our eyes, is a clever introduction to the themes of the film as well as to it's unusual narrative tack.
Memento is a very smart film. There are points where it is in danger of being too clever for its own good. It is a tribute to Nolan's skill that he is able - in what is only his first major feature effort - to keep from crossing that line, and produce a movie that is interesting, engaging and polished. It is a film that is confidently high on style, but one that is certainly not without substance. Nolan has made an enjoyable film, that establishes him as a film maker worth watching.
That's my take on it. What's yours?