Director Dissection: Christopher Nolan – Memento (2000)

Director Dissection is a series of posts highlighting a specific director with the intention of reviewing all of their directorial efforts, while gaining a better understanding of their work as a whole and showcasing their lesser known films. Christopher Nolan, a favorite of mine, is the first in the series and my goal is to get through his filmography before his next movie, The Dark Knight Rises, is released on July 20, 2012. Memento is available on Netflix Watch Instantly. 

Previous Post: Following

Memento. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Newmarket Films, 2000. 113 mins.

Today, Christopher Nolan is one of most bankable directors in Hollywood. While he has surely been helped by his foray into the fanboy-land of the caped crusader, Inception (2010) was an outright success, despite the fact that many critics were weary of the complicated premise, possibly being too brainy. And critically, using Rotten Tomatoes, Nolan, with all seven of his films, has never dipped below 75%.

Fourteen years ago, Christopher Nolan released his first feature, Following, on a budget of $6,000. And two years after he released his second film, this time with a budget of $9 million (still very small, but it must have felt like Michael Bay money after his first movie), to adapt his brother, Jonathan’s, short story “Memento Mori”. Memento would prove to be Nolan’s breakthrough.

Memento (2000) Dir. Christopher Nolan

Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) has this condition. In his attempt to stop his wife from being raped and murdered, he receives a blow to the head and can no longer create new memories (Anterograde amnesia). Memento follows Leonard’s journey hunting down “John G.” who he has deduced was the man who killed his wife. With his condition he must take meticulous notes, resorting to carrying Polaroids of his acquaintances and tattooing himself with the vital information concerning his hunt, so that when he “wakes up” with no knowledge of how he got were he is.

In the first half of the story chronologically (in black and white), Leonard talks to an unknown caller about his system and relates the story of Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), a man he met before his accident. Jankis was diagnosed with the same disorder and Leonard, previously an insurance investigator, was assigned to Jankis’ case. On the grounds that Leonard believed that Sammy was not physically unable to make new memories, he rejected his claim. Sammy’s wife is unsure about his condition, and tries to test him by asking for her insulin shot multiple times in a short period, hoping that he will remember giving the shot. Each time he gives the shot without hesitation, leading to her death.

The second half of the story chronologically (in color), Leonard is close on the heels of John G. He has found the license plate number that will lead him to his target. Along the way Leonard is pulled in different directions by the two other principal characters, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss). Teddy tries to convince Leonard that he should skip town and that Natalie is only trying to take advantage of him, while Natalie asks for his help in dealing with Dodd (Callum Keith Rennie), who is after her for a debt her boyfriend left behind. In exchange she helps him pull the license plate number so Leonard can identify his man. Although, as the film progresses it becomes clear that Leonard’s method for dealing with his condition is not fool proof, and problems arise with what he deduces to be true from his notes, and from the “help” he is receiving from others.

The first thing that jumps out as you watch Memento is the presentation of the film. Two timelines play out at the same time, one in black and white and the other in color. The black and white line progresses traditionally, while the color line starts at the last scene chronologically, and each time we revisit this line we see the previous scene that led up to what we had just seen. These two lines eventually meet in the middle for the climactic scene of the film, the black and white “develops” to color in time with the Polaroid that Leonard has just taken.

Again Nolan has decided to tell his story in a non-linear fashion, but when comparing the presentation of Memento to that of Following, the non-linear storytelling of Memento services its film and its characters in a fully realized way and ultimately is more satisfying. In my entry for Following, I wrote that its progression changes your attention from what will happen to the protagonist to how and why it does, and in addition to this, puts you in the mindset of the Young Man in the final scene throughout your viewing of the film. While the logistics are navigated masterfully and the choices of when to reveal crucial information helps create a puzzle for the viewer and the Young Man to solve (a characteristic of most Nolan films), thematically the story progression adds nothing. The same thing cannot be said for Memento.

Early on in the film, the front desk clerk Burt (Russ Fega) comments on Leonard’s condition saying, “Maybe you have an idea about what you want to do next, but you don’t remember what you just did.” Again we are presented with the end result, Leonard’s killing of Teddy, and we question how things have reached this point. As the scene breaks correspond with Leonard’s lapses in memory, we “awake” with him. With no idea how he has arrived in that situation, having to piece together clues, hopefully arriving at the right conclusion. And while we are privy to information in Following that the protagonist is not, our insight into Memento is completely reliant on Leonard’s thought process and his notes.

Another connection to be made between Chris Nolan’s first and second film is the role of manipulation. Memento, like Following, has two characters that influence the protagonist in negative ways. While Teddy and Natalie are less sinister than Cobb and the Blonde, they are still turning Leonard into a killer. They use the anger that Leonard has towards his wife’s killer to help them (Natalie, to lead Dodd away from her, and Teddy, to make some money). And like the Young Man in Following, Leonard’s identity is molded by these characters. He remembers himself as the insurance investigator from San Francisco, but Teddy is quick to remind him, “That’s who you were, not who you are.” A strange comment considering Teddy is somewhat to blame for his transformation. 

The discussion between Leonard and Teddy in the diner looms large over the film. “Memory is unreliable,” Leonard says. “Memory can change the shape of a room, it can change the color of a car.” We are given Leonard as our narrator, but can we trust what he says. The story he tells about Sammy is our insight into his condition but how much of this memory should we believe. It’s crazy how willing as a viewer you are to accept his truth, especially when the story is interrupted by this diner scene. The big reveal in Memento is that Leonard has already killed John G. That Teddy helped him find the murderer of his wife, but he couldn’t remember. So Teddy has helped him find other John G.’s that are disposable and that Teddy can make money off of. More importantly though is that Leonard’s wife did not die in the home invasion, but rather in the way Leonard remembers Sammy’s wife dying. Even from the beginning, Leonard has been hunting John G. under false pretenses. He has been driven by revenge, and become a killer without even realizing it.

What now becomes important for Leonard to consider is whether his actions have meaning, even if he does not remember them happening. Reconsidering Sammy Jankis’ story, after knowing that much of what we know about Jankis is actually Leonard, it becomes clear that Leonard must remember Sammy Jankis because it is the record of his actions. He mistakenly killed his wife, and even though he did not mean to do it, it still haunts him subconsciously. Like Leonard says, just because he closes his eyes does not mean the world outside him disappears. He has still killed at least one other man. To end this cycle of John G’s, Leonard lies to himself, for the first time in the film, and gives himself false evidence to lead him to kill Teddy. (License plate # and “Dont Believe His Lies”). “We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are.”

Many critics of the film say that the film is little more than style over substance. That watching it a second time would be far less interesting. Memento being one of my favorite films, and a key reason why I chose to dissect Christopher Nolan, I obviously disagree. A huge factor in the rewatch-ability for me are the performances. Guy Pearce is outstanding as Leonard and lends a wide range to the emotional scope for this film. At the same time, possibly his best quality in Memento, is his ability to portray Leonard’s uncertainty. And Pantoliano is perfect as the sleazy friend of Leonard, who seems to be the outright villain (it might help that he seems to play that role a lot). Carrie-Anne Moss sitting in the car waiting for Leonard to forget is such an outstanding single shot too.

I seem to pick up on new things every time I watch Memento. There are small actions throughout the film that show how successfully Nolan has realized Leonard, his system of remembering, and his condition. Leonard crashes into a pull door, but quickly adjusts and pulls the door open, nothing more than a three second action. His memory lapses and he is running through a trailer park. He sees Dodd running as well… Leonard must be chasing Dodd. He quickly understands that is not the case. When pressured by Teddy to write on Natalie’s photo “Do not trust her”, he does so in a distinctly different handwriting. While he rectifies this by looking at Teddy’s photo (Seen above) and crosses it out. Though if he did not cross it out then he would have looked at it later, without remembering his interaction with Teddy, and still questioned it because he cannot trust anyone else’s handwriting. And the most heart-breaking example, he is woken by the prostitute slamming the bathroom door and doesn’t remember that his wife is dead, asking her if everything is alright. These small actions, more than the explanation of Sammy’s story, or the execution of Leonard’s system, sell his condition and make Leonard a character you can root for. (When you take his character at face value, constantly telling Sammy’s story, carrying around a huge police file and investigating a shut case, his endless talk of his condition, he probably comes off as a crazy person.)

10 out of 10 stars – ★★★★★★★★★★

I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there. Do I believe the world’s still there? Is it still out there?… Yeah. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.” -Leonard Shelby

***Director Dissection: Christopher Nolan will continue with his 2002 film Insomnia***


Other Observations:

♦ During a black and white scene about two-thirds through the film, the connection between Sammy Jankis’ story and the truth of Leonard is hinted at for a split second. The shot is of Jankis sitting in a hospital and he is trying to get a passerby to look at him and see his recognizing eyes. As the person passes the camera he covers the shot and when he passes Leonard is the one sitting in the chair. The shot lasts for only a few frames and is something I missed the first few times I watched the film.

♦ The Special Edition DVD of Memento is one of the best DVD editions I have ever seen. A double disc set that comes in a case resembling a patient folder belonging to Leonard. The menus are cryptic mental evaluation tests, one of the coolest, and at the same time frustrating features. One of my favorite purchases. Has a special feature to watch the film in chronological order, which is an interesting way to see how different the movie would have had to be without the format it is in.

♦ I’m always excited to see Stephen Tobolowsky in any role. As Sammy Jankis, he doesn’t have many lines but when he assures his wife that the insulin shot won’t hurt, I always get blown away. It’s such a perfect delivery. I think he has three lines in the entire movie but his performance is always in the front of my mind when I think back on this film.


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