Christopher Nolan’s Memento, based off his brother Jonathan’s short story Memento Mori, is a film-noir with the star of the film being its non-linear gimmick. The less you know about this film (and really, if you do, I am envious), the better it is for you to stop reading this review right now and watch it immediately. It is near impossible to discuss a spoiler-free review of this film without giving away key plot points to deter your enjoyment, but I’ll try at the risk of sounding repetitive.
Previous reviewers have discussed in detail how Nolan’s technique gives the viewer a nice little puzzle game to put together, quite literally, as the film’s short-term-memory-loss-afflicted hero Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce in a terrific performance) struggles to put together the pieces of his mind – using lots of Polaroids and tattoos – to find out who killed his wife, while his friends (The Matrix’s Carrie-Ann Moss and Joe Pantoliano) keep shuffling alliances. At the end of the day, it is what it is – just a gimmick, a storytelling technique that looks cool, at least in my opinion.
However, like other good film noirs, said gimmick gives Memento a lot of style. It’s a bit of an adrenaline rush watching the film work both in reverse for the colored segments, with chronological black-and-white segments fragmented in between. Quite literally, Nolan allows the viewer to retrace their steps like sleuths back to the beginning to figure out what exactly is going on. Certainly, the work must be daunting for editor Dody Dorn, for not only having to keep up with Nolan’s breakneck pace, but also to make the whole thing cohesive as it is.
Is it considered a cheap tactic to lure the audience with such razzle dazzle? Not at all, if directed this exhilaratingly. Although – and I feel the pitchforks coming this way – calling it one of the greatest films ever made is a bit of a hyperbole at this point. I will admit, however, that the reverse chronology storytelling method is an ingenous method of putting the audience firmly in Leonard’s eyes for not allowing them to know more than he does as the mystery unravels. For many viewers jaded with the tired old seedy neo-noirs playing hazily in the Cinemax background, Memento arrives with the doctor’s prescriptions.
Though I admit that the film has glaring issues in the middle, such as Leonard’s leniency to have his pals remind him about his short-term memory loss – especially considering that his condition would enable him to forget that he has such a condition in the first place – the flaws are overcome by strong performances, a stylish gimmick, and excellent direction from Nolan that keeps the audience on its toes, all the way towards a diabolical ending. For Hollywood studios, this was the one that made them think Nolan would be a big player. For aspiring film school students, the style would be countlessly aped and referred to for the years to come. There wasn’t any turning back for Nolan at this point.
[★★★★½] out of [★★★★★]