Number 45 on the top 1000 greatest films of all time is Christopher Nolan’s 2002 neo-noir, psychological thriller Memento.
Long before Christopher Nolan was entertaining comic book fans with the Dark Knight Trilogy or wowing audiences with Inception or deafening viewers with Interstellar, he was confusing them with Memento. At heart, Memento is a simple story of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) an insurance investigator, with a memory condition which prevents him from forming new memories, trying to track down the two men who raped and murdered his wife.
However, on the surface it is more complicated. Memento contains two narratives who begin separately but progressively converge on each other. The first narrative is set in the present day, shot in colour and is shown in reverse chronological order. It details Leonard Shelby trying to track down the men who killed his wife using polaroid photographs and tattoos on his body to help him remember vital information. The second narrative is set in the past, shot in monochrome and shown in chronological order. This narrative details Leonard’s engagement with Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky:) a man with the same condition as Leonard, whom the latter suspects is trying to commit insurance fraud.
The nature of the narrative and the two converging storylines with one told in reverse chronological order is confusing and demands the viewer’s full attention. I really like how Nolan did this. Having a narrative as difficult to follow as this means that you can’t look away for an instant and you have to watch the film intently. This means that the viewer is more engaged with the film and will be dwelling on it for a longer time. Thus Nolan places some sort of trust within his audience to piece together the film for themselves. Furthermore, I like how the nature of the film meant that much of it is somewhat ambiguous. Even though, it is heavily implied that John “Teddy” Gammell (Joe Pantoliano) is the killer that Shelby is looking for, this is never confirmed and furthermore Shelby’s memory condition makes him an unreliable narrator, as the viewer can never be sure of what he remembers and what he doesn’t.
I also really liked the two narratives and how they engaged with each other. I loved the Sammy Jankis narrative and I found this very emotionally touching. Just like Leonard, Sammy can remember everything he knew before the accident that led to his anterograde amnesia, but he can’t form any new memories. He can remember how to give his wife an insulin shot, but he can’t remember that he gave her one, even when he does it three times a row. I felt that Stephen Tobolowsky was great in his role as Sammy. Tobolowsky played the role brilliantly and the storyline was very sad. However, during the film’s conclusion, it is actually revealed that Jankis was single and it was in fact Shelby who gave his wife multiple insulin shots leading her to enter a coma which she never wakes up from.
As I previously said, the nature of this film means that you have to pay close attention to it or you will be completely lost. This did happen to me on a few occasions and I became quite confused. This detracted from the viewing experience for me, as I wasn’t sure what was going on, although maybe that’s more of a reflection of my limited brainpower rather than the film itself. One part of the film I didn’t like was the subplot of Natalie, the girlfriend of a drug dealer whom Shelby kills. I found how Natalie wanting Shelby to run a man called Dodd out of town confusing and irrelevant to the main plot. Whilst I can understand the inclusion of Natalie and her boyfriend, whom Gammell sets up as the killer of Shelby’s wife, I really didn’t understand the inclusion of Dodd.
The film is clever and complicated. However, it does get a little confusing and convoluted at times and it also has a subplot that doesn’t contribute to the main plot.