Now comes one of the major revelations of the past twenty years. If Following was Nolan’s rough but fun first try and a feature, then Memento is the bang-up second film that cements him as a serious filmmaker and voice for his generation. Memento is a baffling film. It is set mostly in hotels, seedy bars and alleyways, and the houses of stranger — just like Following — and revolves around man who’s last memory is of his wife — being killed. Leonard (Guy Pearce) sustained a nasty hit on the head which destroyed his brain’s ability to record new memories. His long-term memory is fine, but his ability to create new members, his ability to remember faces, names, or events, is completely gone. It is as if a portion of his mind has been erased or removed, and he is now forced to try and pick himself up and function the best that he can. On his left hand is a cryptic tattoo: “remember Sammy Jankis.”
“Sammy Jankis wrote himself endless notes. But he’d get mixed up. I’ve got a more graceful solution to the memory problem. I’m disciplined and organized. I use habit and routine to make my life possible. Sammy had no drive. No reason to make it work.”
Leonard’s graceful solution is to carry around a polaroid with him everywhere he goes. He takes pictures of people, places, and things he needs to remember. On the front, under the photo, he writes the person’s name, or the location’s address; on the back he writes a short clue or instruction, something he needs to remember. Things like “she will help you out of pity” or “don’t believe his lies,” are the clues he leaves himself. But this is only part one of his solution. Part two is his endless number of tattoos. Each one detailing some clue regarding the identity of his wife’s murderer, or something he should remember. “Never answer the phone,” says one of the tattoos. These tats are a mixture of homemade markings made with a needle and pen ink, and professional tattoos from a parlor down the street from the hotel he is staying in.
The interesting part of this film, however, is how the narrative is presented to the audience. Unlike Following which seems to cloud the narrative in a non-chronological order for no reason other than misdirection, Memento builds it structure from its main characters medical condition. Since Leonard does not get to remember events that happened only a few moments before, neither do we. The entirety of Memento is played out in reverse order. We see how a scene begins and how it ends. The next scene starts and ends where the previous scene began. It is an elegant solution that keeps us as much in the dark as it does Leonard. Over the course of the film the motivations, and ethical character, of different people will be called into question, reassured, and then destroyed. Leonard is manipulated and lied to, but he is also told the truth on occasion: “Hey, it’s not like you’ll remember,” remarks the hotel clerk when he reveals he has been ripping Leonard off.
This film acts as an interesting bridge in Nolan’s work, as it clearly builds on the foundation created in his previous film Following, but abandons its quirks and flaws for a tighter and more streamlined narrative and style. This is also the film that began the collaboration between Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister. Pfister would photograph all of Nolan’s films until Interstellar (2014) after Pfister went on to direct his own films. From Interstellar onward Hoyte Van Hoytema would take the reigns of the camera. Thematically this builds upon the themes laid out in Following: the unreliability of memory (obviously), questioning reality (very interesting in this film), and the desire to protect those we love. Leonard, of course, has failed at protecting his wife, and during the course of the film he shifts his protectiveness to a woman named Natalie, all the while still searching for his wife’s killer.
Leonard’s inability to protect his wife is ultimately his downfall and is ultimately why he is an incredibly tragic hero. The film begins at the end, so we know where Leonard’s story ends up, but the question is where it began. Nolan slowly reveals the backward narrative to us, but intercuts these scenes with a forward-moving narrative presented in black and white. The interesting moment is when the forward-moving narrative collides with the backward-moving narrative. It is in this moment when we realize just how clever Nolan’s arrangement of the material is. Also, I feel that I must point out how great the aesthetics and cinematography are in this film. The forward-moving narrative is presented in a grainy black and white, highly stylized and deeply contrasted; meanwhile, the backward-moving narrative is presented in beautiful, rich-looking color. It is also important to note that the black and white segments features palpable tension and paranoia. Memento reeks of contemporary crime thriller, all the while having its feet firmly planted in its roots in classic film-noir.
As the narrative unfolds we see Leonard stressing over and over again that his strategy and method of keeping things straight is foolproof, and overall he does a admirable job. When he sees someone who obviously recognizes him he simply pulls his wad of polaroids from his pocket, shuffles through it, finds a picture of the person speaking to him, reads their name and the note he has about them, and moves on. This leads to the single funniest gag in the movie. One character Teddy, every time he sees Leonard, constantly appears around a corner calling the same thing “Lenny!!” at the top of his lungs, all the while knowing Leonard has no idea who he is. At first it seems obnoxious, then it seems mocking, finally we realize it is Teddy’s way to let Leonard know “hey, I know you.”
Leonard always responds the same way, “I have this condition–“, Teddy interrupts his explanation, “yeah, yeah, I know.”