Memento (2000, Christopher Nolan)
Puzzles are fun. A movie that can sustain a well-rounded story and also give us a somewhat coherent mystery to solve, something that keeps us paying close attention to every detail and requires us to greet every confusing, open-ended development with skepticism and a cocked eye, is sort of a rare treasure. A movie that can do all that and achieve not just intense identification with its lead character, in the vein of a great Hitchcock thriller, but also convincingly put across some well-earned glimpses into that character’s emotional state without falling back on traditional suspense-schlock shorthand… well, that’s the sort of thing you wait around for and embrace when it comes. And many of us did when Christopher Nolan appeared on the international film stage back in the beginning of this century with Memento, still so far as I can tell his best and most inspired effort.
Nolan and his brother Jonathan’s story and script are very much an enterprise built on ideas, most of which are smartly presented and nearly all of which serve some sort of dual purpose. For instance, the pretense of playing out their restrained and tragic revenge story backwards is a fairly old-hat arthouse stunt until it dawns on you that it’s actually an easy way for the filmmakers to place us in a perpetually threatened mode of empathy with our hard-boiled narrator Leonard (a gamely gawky Guy Pearce). Leonard does lots of things that film noir protagonists often do: wakes up blackout drunk, shows up in the bedrooms of women whose names he can’t remember, gets beaten up and doesn’t quite know why, follows wild goose chases and gets car windows and teeth knocked out. In his case, though, many of these glamorous little sidelines have a more practical edge: he suffers from short-term memory loss, so every five or ten minutes or so he finds himself unable to remember what circumstances just brought him to his current, usually quite dangerous plight. When you really think about it, that’s a brilliant enough conceit that one wonders why no one got to it before Nolan — and maybe someone did, but undoubtedly without quite this sense of both giddy, perverse adventure and final air of sad futility.
Part of the operative pleasure of Memento is that, like so many fine breakthrough independent films, it thinks small while covertly expanding our idea of its stage. After being run through the film’s wringer, after the draining journey of following Leonard as he attempts to track down and assassinate one of his wife’s killers in what turns out to be prolonged, frustrated, ultimately directionless lashing out of unspeakable grief and guilt, you can be forgiven if you find it slightly hard to reduce what you’ve just seen to a couple of drab hotel rooms and monochromatic L.A. strips that seem more like the backdrop of a film like Clerks than Out of the Past. And of course, it’s telling in a sense that in our modern age, we need a rational excuse to have a hero who’s so zonked out of his mind that he doesn’t know what the fuck is going on, since we can’t just cast Robert Mitchum anymore and call it a day; but given these limitations, the film is as persuasive a venture as we can get inside of a person’s head in thriller context, a look directly into a cracked mirror.
Divorced from its particularly throttling central conceit, the Raymond Chandler stuff of the plot is downright classicist when you think about it, or like something out of a particularly embittered Frank Miller comic — the wronged male searching for the John G. who played havoc upon his sense of self in every possible respect. Like any especially well-crafted mystery, Memento bursts with possibility, finding every visually and emotionally intriguing place to go with its premise. The tattoos all over Leonard reminding him of the bare facts of the case he’s trying with all his heart to solve, the memories of a faker whose absence of response to a psychological test of his repetitive motor skills gave the game away (something explained in an incredibly smooth series of expository sequences), and the especially noirish assist from a sex worker whose instruction is to simply pretend to be the dead wife away from the bed, this to be followed by the brooding moment of the hero glumly, with macho resolve, popping his betrothed’s possefssions into a fire.
The sleight of hand inherent to the film’s structure, though, is of course deceptive. It has a beginning, middle and an end — and a climax — like any other narrative film, and those aren’t shown to us in reverse. Our omniscience as an audience is gained over time, which allows us to see a certain hard-won truth in its various characters, which seem at times like the sinister specters in some old role playing game — the reverse-ingenue played by Carrie-Anne Moss who sees the opportunity to manipulate, and the tragic innocent Teddy who may or may not be precisely as innocent as the film coyly implies. Or maybe he is, it’s hard to say, which is central to the interactive nature of the film: so much of it is based on our own prejudices and conjectures — the information presented to us by the film is really only the beginning. That is a share of its real score, much more than its backward mind-fuck.
Still, Memento soars all these years later on a repeat visit more than you might expect because Pearce and Nolan so clearly understand that Leonard is not merely a screwup with vengeance on his mind but a broken human being; the film carefully posits that it’s emotion, not memory or lack thereof, that provide his purpose and render him so obviously fallible — he spends the entire film on what we finally know, or are pretty sure we think we know (!), to be a red herring — and therefore undercuts the macho heroism that informs the entire noir and comic hero mythology. All of Leonard’s actions are born of what seems to be logic and purpose but the film is configured so that we slowly realize he is being directed by darker forces. If Teddy’s latecoming exposition is the reality of Leonard’s actual and non-remembered life, Leonard’s disease and his quest for violent revenge are just a symptom of loss, of how he’s unable to bear what happened to his wife and his part in it. The finale indicates that a vindictive, very human flash of anger can have mortal consequences for him; he is truly in a mental prison, no matter how much he feels he can beat it. He is, to coin a phrase, stuck in a moment. There’s no escape from his all-consuming, raw grief when new memories cannot be made, when the passage of a year doesn’t allow a devastating blow to come to feel distant. That’s why this is not, in contrast to most of Nolan’s work, simply a “cool” movie.
The closing twist, in turn, registers as something more resigned and sad on repeat viewings. It’s easy enough to watch the film and come to remember Leonard as something of an apparent ticking timebomb who could potentially be seen as a dangerous psychopath. A closer look, though, seems to indicate that is just how other characters in the film have looked upon him, have found a way to use and manipulate and unconsciously torture him, without him so much as knowing, like a sort of individual Milgram’s experiment. Teddy uses Leonard to kill a guy who’s evidently just a drug runner up his ass, though he claims that the “real killer ” was captured and destroyed long ago; Moss’ Natalie takes advantage of Leonard’s protective instincts, attraction to her and total haplessness to knock away some trouble for her own benefit. One wonders if the flash of anger that seals Teddy’s undeserved fate is simply a prescient moment of self-preservation kicking in: he thinks he can break this cycle.
You can spend years trying to dissect the film and generate all sorts of wild theories about it — that’s the major benefit of its vague, elegant brevity. Instead of artificial “clues,” Memento fills its scenes and dreams and images with human benchmarks that tell us incidental things about Leonard and his surroundings, things that fill out his terribly small world and make it seem lived in. Everything about the film that could easily be cynical instead feels resonant and palpably tragic. Godard said all you needed was a girl and a gun. Maybe you need even less than that — maybe the memory of day-to-day routine, of an easy camaraderie with a loved one and presence of mind we all take for granted (even if we’re sort of assholes, like Leonard vaguely appears to have been in his stuffy insurance-investigator flashbacks) is all we really need to make an unforgettable story. It’s a rare sort of thriller, I think, that makes you thankful that nothing has ripped you from the orbit of other human beings — that makes you, indeed, want to hug somebody.