Chinatown is arguably one of the five greatest American films ever made if not the greatest period, and while the subtext of cruelty and random violence exists alongside a masterful deconstruction of the elements of classic noir, Chinatown‘s genius primarily resides in being an excellent story perfectly told. It has those elements of being about more than the story of Jake Gittes as well as great characters, but unlike most of the films I herald as “the greatest ever made,” it’s story is 99% of the draw. Chinatown is practically the Platonic ideal of great screenwriting, and 2000’s Memento from director Christopher Nolan is the greatest neo-noir since Polanski bowled us over 40 years ago.
Memento‘s reputation as “the movie told in backward chronology” kept me from watching it for many years. As someone who’s found Christopher Nolan’s work to be very good but not as great as many others seem to believe, I assumed the film’s gimmick was its only draw. That isn’t the case, but even if it had been and there weren’t any more layers to Memento other than its tightly-layered narrative, Memento would have been one of the most expertly paced and structured crime thrillers of the last decade. But by becoming a commentary on how we remember things and what we choose to remember (as well as a slick discussion of the emptiness of revenge), Memento is so much more than its gimmick.
Though it is more than its gimmick and as sharply scripted and clever as any film of the aughts, Memento‘s unique structure provides half of the thrills of any first viewing. Guy Pearce (Iron Man 3) plays Leonard, a man suffering from a severe (and not medically accurate but I honestly don’t care in this film) case of anterograde amnesia. Leonard’s wife was raped and murdered, and during the assault, Leonard was given serious brain damage. He can remember everything before his injury with perfect clarity, but Leonard no longer has the capability of producing short term memories. Before long, Leonard forgets everything that’s just happened to him, and the only way he’s able to function is through an elaborate series of tattoos and photographs that direct him towards his next action.
Leonard’s sole raison d’etre is to find and kill the man who murdered his wife and left him with his condition. And the film begins with Leonard killing the seemingly friendly Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) because a photograph of Teddy that Leonard is carrying says he is the one and that he must kill him. And from there, the film continues to unravel back towards the beginning as we find out that maybe Teddy wasn’t him, and we get to know a dangerous femme fatale (Carrie Anne-Moss) that is helping Leonard and his photo says that he can trust her, but can he really? And what secrets are being hidden from this man who is constantly meeting people for the “first” time?
Part of Memento‘s clever conceit of being told backwards is that it is actually a perfectly “structured” story of the Syd Field/Robert McKee vein. Yes, we’re getting all of the facts in backwards order, but if Memento were told from start to beginning, it would be a terribly structured tale with the revelations in a jumbled, poorly paced mess. Memento is a classic mystery/noir based around picking apart what is the truth and what are the lies in the life of Leonard and why he kills Teddy at the beginning and whether or not he should have done that. And few films can match Memento on a twist-by-twist basis as you navigate the minefield of its mental gymnastics. But, from a point-of-view of pure structure, it follows the classic mold to a tee; it just warps and plays with it to its own (and the audience’s) delight.
But Memento distinguishes itself by having more to say than just your traditional crime thriller. And that’s funny because I was almost content to give this movie perfect marks before I realized what the film’s real point was. I can’t talk too much about what this film is about without ruining some of the major twists of the film’s final act, but Memento is a stark subversion of your average revenge tale (as any film about revenge should be). Leonard can’t remember more than 20 minutes of his life at once, but he functions perfectly during those moments of time. And that means he can fall prey to human vice and human flaws, and are the facts that Leonard has written on his body really facts at all? Or do we simply remember what we want to even when we can barely remember anything at all?
The worst that can be said about Memento is that it is not a visually imaginative film. With the exception of The Prestige and Inception, Nolan’s films are rooted in a gritty realism, and Memento‘s visuals are no exception. Although the claustrophobia of anonymous motel rooms and abandoned buildings works to Memento‘s advantage as it adds a level of disorientation for the viewers that matches Leonard’s state of mind. And, the black and white sequences that are running concurrent to the main story (without following the backwards tale [I don’t want to spoil this too much]) is a nice if perhaps too simple way of segregating these lanes of Memento‘s story.
Guy Pearce’s performance is one of those rare performances that you might think is stale and boring at first (because he’s a dude who literally can’t remember more than 15 minutes ago) but you grow to appreciate it more and more as the film progresses until you reach the end. But, as the layers of his character are revealed, you see the obsessiveness and cold brutality that is lying beneath the seemingly lost exterior of Leonard, and Guy Pearce (and Christopher Nolan) peel back these characters with laser precision. Carrie-Anne Moss also shines as the femme fatale whose real motives are constantly up in the air.
For those, like me, who found the cult of Christopher Nolan to be a bit insufferable, Memento may likely be the only film capable of changing your mind. For those whose itch for neo-noir can never be fully sated, Memento and its labyrinthine layers will keep your brain working long enough to scratch that itch. Great story is so rare in today’s world of sequels, remakes, and reboots, and while Christopher Nolan has never managed to live up to this remarkable second feature, it’s one of the most refreshing and intellectually invigorating stories of the 2000s and a true can’t miss for any real cinema lovers.
Final Score: A+