‘Memento’ at 20 – Nolan’s masterpiece?

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Memento, Christopher Nolan’s breakout film, turns 20 this year. With the release of his latest Tenet in August, it seems an apt time to give his earliest mind-bending masterpiece a re-evaluation. This article will explore how the Oscar-nominated film laid the foundations for Nolan’s career and set him aside as one of the most influential and recognisable filmmakers of the 21st century.

Memento focuses on Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), an insurance investigator, who following an accident has lost his short term memory and relies on tattoos, notes and a series of photographs to keep him going in his pursuit of his wife’s killer. It’s told in reverse with the film’s chronology playing backwards, with a series of forward-moving black & white scenes filling in the gaps with the 2 storylines eventually intersecting. 

The early reviews for the film were overwhelmingly positive, with Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian commenting “the exhilaration is that his film is terrific: exciting, demanding, agile, sly, witty and fun. Bobbing and weaving for 112 minutes, it is a film which somehow manages to keep you off balance and on your toes”. Memento has since gone on to be ranked in many best of the 2000s and 21st Century lists.

Having recently watched Memento for the first time it’s clear to see why it is constantly placed at the top of ratings of Nolan’s work and its influence is clear on his subsequent films, with the way the narrative unfolds and deceives the audience’s expectations.  Memento’s screenplay is one of Nolan’s finest, written as with many later films with the aid of his brother Jonathan and is deserving of its Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. It is also perhaps easy to say that this film landed him the job of directing Batman Begins and redefining the Superhero genre.  

Memento marks Nolan’s first foray into mind-bending, non- linear narratives and using time and memory as a central plot device.  Time travel and bending are central plot points in Tenet and Interstellar with Dunkirk also being split into three intersecting timeframes.  Memento is perhaps easier to follow than Tenet, which while receiving generally positive reviews, has received a share of criticism for its narrative complexity and the necessity for repeat viewings to truly understand its storyline. This is also a criticism aimed at Inception.  Memento’s time messing at first can be hard to follow but as with much of Nolan’s work, it doesn’t take its audience’s IQ for granted and shows not every film needs to be exposition-heavy, walking its audience frame by frame through its plot.

Memento movie review & film summary (2001) | Roger Ebert

The stakes in Memento are also much lower than in subsequent Nolan films. We are focused entirely on Guy Pearce’s performance and there is no end of the world incident, it is purely driven by this one man’s desire to get closure. In truth Memento, its follow-up, the underrated Al Pacino-led Insomnia and to an extent The Prestige, are perhaps Nolan’s smallest scale affairs and perhaps benefit from this as the action is far more character-led than in say Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and Dunkirk. These three in particular are far more set-piece driven. This perhaps is one of the key points that separate the earlier part of Nolan’s career from his post-Dark Knight phase.

As ever with a Christopher Nolan film, the performances are top-notch, with Guy Pearce really excelling in what was probably the most mainstream phase of his Hollywood career, having led the acclaimed noir film LA Confidential a few years prior. He really sells Leonard’s plight and despite his lack of short term memory, his desire to uncover the truth never feels repetitive.  The supporting cast also does a tremendous job, with Carrie Ann Moss a fine foil and Joe Pantoliano as Teddy, whose intentions seem unclear.

One of the key points to take away from Memento is the early signs of Nolan’s intelligence within the style of the film. Narrative tampering aside, it is so heavy in the tropes of the Noir genre which can so easily feel like imitations of others works. The sun-drenched LA really works for the film as the sunny scenery contrasts the darkness of the plot and Leonard’s condition. Of course, this is certainly not the only time Nolan would flip genre conventions, the most obvious example being The Dark Knight Trilogy, which was more grounded and atmospheric than many other Superhero films in 2005 and influenced other franchise reimaginings, with its fingerprints clearly evident in 2006’s Casino Royale. In Tenet and Inception, we have also seen Nolan’s takes on the spy genre, which again while having moments of familiarity, feel worlds apart from say Bond or Mission Impossible.

For anyone who has yet to dive into Christopher Nolan’s filmography, Memento would make a fine starting point, as it is a great introduction to a filmmaker honing his craft and offering variations on many cinematic norms. It is impeccably acted, razor-sharp and unique in many facets, this will leave audiences no doubt wanting to watch his subsequent masterpieces, which have come to define blockbuster cinema over the past 2 decades.

Words by Chris Connor

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