Christopher Nolan has come a long way from his directional debut with a no-budget, neo-noir production, Following, in 1998 to his upcoming big-budget, sci-fi space adventure, Interstellar, which is due for release this winter. And in his quick yet steady rise from just another independent filmmaker to one of the most revered auteurs of cinema working in the industry today, Nolan has given us some of the most memorable films of the 21st century that have been critical & commercial successes but what truly has garnered him legions of devoted fan following over the years from both inside & outside the film industry is his innate ability to narrate a complex story in such a compelling manner that he’s able to make even the modern mass audience willing to embrace it rather than just sit back & digest whatever spectacle is being fed to them.
But what really started it all in the first place and brought him considerable attention from critics & viewers for the first time was his second independent feature, which Nolan adapted from the short story written by his brother. An unforgettable journey into the mind of a man with no memory, Memento is one of the most original, fun, inventive, intriguing & mind-puzzling motion pictures to have come out in a long time that will have its viewers guessing from the very beginning to the very end & even afterwards. A strangely affecting cinematic experience that’s downright clever & innovative, this psychological thriller has gained a significant cult following since its release and throughout its runtime, it beautifully exhibits Christopher Nolan’s incredible talent of as a storyteller & remains one of the most admired works of his impressive film career.
Divided into two adjacent timelines which periodically alternate from start to finish, Memento tells the story of Leonard Shelby; an ex-insurance detective who is suffering from short-term memory loss after a brutal attack leaves him incapable of building new memories. Relying on notes, tattoos & Polaroid photographs to keep reminding himself of whatever has happened in the recent past, the plot covers Leonard’s desperate attempt to find the person he thinks is responsible for the murder of his wife, which is the last thing he remembers. The film is structured into two different timelines; one presented in black-n-white which follow the events in chronological order while the other stays in colour & runs in reverse order. The opening credits scene alone cues the viewers about what to expect from it as we see a Polaroid photograph fading into its undeveloped state, followed by an entire sequence literally playing backwards.
Written & directed by Christopher Nolan, Memento remains the director’s best work as a screenwriter & also showcases some brilliant filmmaking techniques in his direction which would later go on to become his very own trademarks. But the best part about this psychological thriller is its carefully structured style of narration which puts the viewers in the protagonist’s shoes as the reverse chronology makes sure that just like Leonard, we have no knowledge of what happened before, plus once we get the taste of his inability to build new memories, it somehow forces us to feel more sympathetic towards him which is exactly what the director intended in the first place. But unlike Leonard, we are able to keep each segment memorised & are able to connect the dots. And as the story progresses & we try to fit every piece of puzzle in its right place, everything eventually starts making sense to deliver a cerebral experience that’s as enriching as it is exhilarating.
Coming to the technical aspects, the production design team keeps every setting & location of filming relatively simple. The film marks the first of many collaborations between Nolan & his director of photography, Wally Pfister. Cinematography makes the two different timelines easy to differentiate by capturing one in crisp black-n-white while the other stays in colour. Editing is, without any shadow of a doubt, the film’s finest technical aspect as it splits the entire story into multiple segments & rearranges them in an order that makes both timelines run adjacent to each other. And last but not the least, the music department presents David Julyan making sensible use of his synthesized tracks but it often doesn’t get the credit it deserves considering the fact that the background score not only adds an elegant touch to the whole film but also provides a sense of loss & yearning to its story which can be felt for the entirety of its runtime.
Coming to the acting department, Memento features a pretty much recognisable cast in Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss & Joe Pantoliano and each one of them have done fabulously well in their given roles. Guy Pearce is rarely seen by any as someone who’s capable of carrying an entire film on his shoulders but here, he really surprises everyone with his properly weighed performance as Leonard Shelby & throughout the film, he was thoroughly committed to his character. Carrie-Anne Moss plays Natalie; a bartender who is mentioned on Leonard’s Polaroid picture of her as someone who’ll help him out of pity as she also has lost someone. Joe Pantoliano is in as Teddy; an undercover police officer who is also helping Leonard catch the killer but Leonard’s picture of him continuously reminds him to not believe his lies. And both Moss & Pantoliano end up delivering equally mysterious & complex performances in their supporting roles.
What’s further interesting about the film & something that made me appreciate Nolan even more as a storyteller is how expertly he laid bare our intrinsic ability to instantly believe in something or someone. In the beginning, we quickly assume Leonard to be the good guy, Natalie as the helper & Teddy as the villain considering what we witness in the beginning. However, as the film progresses & we learn more about these characters with each reverse segment, our entire preconceived notion goes for a toss when the shades of grey are introduced into each one of these characters at just the right moments, thus making us more n more doubtful about our very own beliefs. And in my opinion, it’s the casting of Pantoliano that worked best because given his history of playing bad guys persona, he easily comes off as the story’s antagonist but in the end, his subtle work did leave many of us wondering if he was anything more than just a victim.
Smart, clever, captivating, innovative, complex, exciting, thrilling & entertaining, Memento is an excellently directed, deftly scripted, wonderfully photographed, ingeniously edited, beautifully composed & sincerely performed cinema that’ll leave its own memento on your mind in the end & you’re gonna have a hard time forgetting how much fun you had while solving this intelligently crafted jigsaw puzzle. On an overall scale, Memento is a blazing work of originality that launched the film career of one of modern cinema’s visionaries & despite him accomplishing much greater recognition in his later films, it’s still considered by many as Nolan’s finest directional effort to date. An instant classic, an impressive breakthrough and an intriguing brain-teaser that promises a rewarding cinematic experience & in its own complex manner truly delivers it, Memento comes one hundred percent recommended. Multiple viewings advised.