Take a simple B-Grade murder mystery thriller revolving around only 3 characters and at most half a dozen supporting players/extras, and then f**k around with the order in a way not seen outside a “Star Trek” time travel episode and you get this flick.
“Memento” is a very clever, complex and extremely well constructed movie which demands intelligence and constant attention from its viewers, yet is put together using only a handful of simple elements. Its a sign of a film that may have had a low budget, but came together with a LOT of thought, cleverness and above all patience. If you’re in the mood for something light, relaxing and fun then steer clear. The film is dark, convoluted and definitely requires your complete concentration for its full run time – you need to be in the mood for a challenge to face this one.
What’s surprising is that there is a conventional and actually rather cheesy noir story behind it: A husband seeks revenge on the person(s) who murdered his wife and left him with his condition, and the only help he has is his rather dubiously motived friend and a tough female barmaid. What makes “Memento” different is two things – the uniquely structured narrative and the elements which support it.
After a very cool, Matrix-like reverse time shooting right at the start – the film is broken down into about 13 segments of about seven minutes each. Each one precedes the other so each segment ends with how the previous segment began – for example Pearce arrives at a coffee shop, sits and talks to a woman in one segment. The next segment has him driving and then parking outside the coffee shop and heading inside to meet the woman.
The one after that has him getting into his car and start driving. Confused? Its hard to explain in so many words, but it gets even more complex. You see in-between each one is a black-and-white scene in a hotel room which has Pearce talking on the telephone and telling, in flashback, the story of a client of his who had the same condition, and as you can guess right from the start the black and white bit at some point ‘catches up’ and mixes in with the colour segments.
The great benefit of this mode of storytelling is that your thrust right into the middle of the action with no idea of what the hell is going on. As it unfolds backwards you begin to make connections and get a general idea of the whole thing, but because effect precedes cause you cannot trust anything – nothing is set in stone and there’s great moments where things you think you’ve figured out or take for granted turn out to have totally unexpected origins.
These are the ‘elements’ I was referring to and they’re what make this ‘backwards narrative’ trick rise above the level of being a gimmick – they’re things which can only have an impact if told in this format and they certainly do have an impact. From Pearce’s photo captions to a great scene at Moss’ house, these are the most memorable and interesting elements of the film.
The performances are solid across the board with Pearce finally doing a role in a US movie that truly displays his talent. Not only is he believable throughout the movie but he gets to show off a lot of his range – its a performance that kicks the crap out of the stilted dialogue which plagues Russell Crowe in “Gladiator”.
Pearce has also physically prepared for the role really well too – gone is the anorexic look of “Rules of Engagement”, replaced with a toned physique covered in some of the most intricate tattoos you’ll ever see and which are the most essential elements of the story – his body literally is a vital character of its own in this as it sets up a lot of hints and twists.
Moss comes in a close second – its a good character which starts off nice and sympathetic but also has a darker more selfish side – she gives a surprisingly strong and varied performance. Pantoliano is good, albeit a little annoying after a while but that’s more his character than anything else. Everyone in this has dubious intentions, even Pearce’s character funnily enough.
The drawbacks are very few and very minor, the kinds of things which won’t bother one person whilst will totally piss off another. As the tale flows backwards, one expected problem is that the story starts off with the climax and heads downward so naturally by about half an hour in, things become pedestrian and nowhere near as interesting as they were. Nolan overcomes this problem thankfully in a few moments with unexpected twists (which do get just a little TOO complex at one point) and the way the ending comes together.
Some will find the ending ‘twist’ to be shocking and compelling, others will feel cheated and/or totally let down for the hard slog. Its certainly overly long but there’s not anything that can be really cut out. Its basically a film that’s perfectly constructed (ie. great script, acting, directing) in pretty much every way, people will only differ in their opinions depending upon personal taste and enjoyment level (things that are entirely subjective and different to each person).
“Memento” is both intelligent and original, with all the hallmarks of a cult hit along the lines of “The Usual Suspects” or “Fight Club” (though the subject matter isn’t as interesting). Its certainly a ‘one of the Top Ten of the year’ style movie and could’ve scored a lot of nominations at the Oscars, especially for Pearce and in categories like editing if it had it come out in December. As it stands, its easily the strongest film opening in the pre-US Summer 2001 season and a film which definitely deserves two viewings at the cinema.