The Top Ten Project #6: Memento
Over the next few weeks I'm going to be counting down my ten favourite films from the last decade. The only way to make a list like this is to be completely subjective. I will look at the films that most influenced my own taste. Rounding off the bottom five is... Number 6: Memento
6: MEMENTO (Dir: Christopher Nolan, 2000)
Watching Memento pull off its extraordinary narrative conceit is like observing a mathematician solve a difficult equation. As it all slowly and flawlessly begins to lock together one feels an enormous amount of joy. This was only Nolan's second feature film yet to this day he has never reached the perfect heights of style and substance that he achieved with Memento.
I remember seeing Nolan's first film, Following, at MIFF a couple of years prior to Memento. I remember thinking at the time that Nolan's direction was one of the films weaker aspects. His screenplay for Following was absolutely brilliant and reminiscent of Memento in its non-linear structure but his direction annoyed me. It made the best of a low-budget but was a bit too caught up in shakey-cam stylistics for it to do the script justice.
For Memento, Nolan got a bigger budget and a better cast and he didn't waste a thing. This is truly a groundbreaking film. His narrative gimmick, starting at the end and working backwards, is perfectly realised. It not only results in a fascinating game for the audience as we piece the film together but it functions to place us into the head of our protagonist Lenny (Guy Pearce in one of his best performances). Each time the film slips backwards we have as much of an idea of what is happening as Lenny. The affect of disorientation is palpable. For the first third of the film this is fantastic stuff for the viewer. As the film progresses though, we begin to get a jump on Lenny. We slowly piece together the story and understand how Lenny is being manipulated by the strangers he meets. Until the final moments this gives the film a glorious sheen of poignant sadness that is completely unexpected.
Structurally Nolan uses a continuous black and white sequence as interstitial breaks between each jump backwards. While these scenes are contrived to a degree they offer the audience a great sense of how Lenny has constructed this world of his. These scenes also pay-off in a significantly satisfying way as the film's backwards sequencing meets up with these scenes and we fade back in to colour finally as the film folds back upon itself. It's a perfect ending, urging the viewer to hit play again and continue this moebius strip of a story.
At the time this film came out (in 2001 for us Australians), I personally was on the tail end of a long obsession with film noir that coloured (pardon the pun) most of my formative teenage film-watching years. I had seen Hollywood pillage this classic genre over the previous decade resulting in the neo-noir movement of the 90s that actually gave us very few good films (John Dahl's Red Rock West jumps immediately to mind as one of the best example of this genre done successfully. I consider it reasonably vital viewing and would urge all to dig it out of their local video store immediately).
Nolan places Memento firmly into a noir world but offers us something astoundingly fresh. If one constructs the story in their mind chronologically (a chronological version of the film is actually included on the Region 2 DVD release as a quite difficult to find easter egg!) one actually ends up with a pretty straightforward noir tale of manipulation and revenge. The genius of this film is that we can experience such a classic tale from such a new perspective simply through formal storytelling devices.
Nolan is not averse to putting several sly jokes into his film too. From having fun with the backwards storytelling structure (most notably is the scene beginning with Lenny running, not knowing why, realising he must be chasing someone before discovering he is the one being chased) to slipping in little details that reward eagle-eyed repeat viewers (watch the Sammy Jenkins flashes very closely for they reveal amazing little clues) Nolan has let nothing slip with this film.
It all could've gone so wrong. It's such an ambitious way to tell a story that one would expect it to fall apart upon consideration and rewatching but believe me it doesn't. I have seen Memento several times now and each viewing only serves to raise my opinion of it. If there is any problem with the film it would be in pacing as the nature of the backwards story results in a degree of repetition and frustration for the viewer but personally this is almost necessary. If the film moved faster it would probably be too much for most audiences. I appreciate the time to process and assess what is happening and the film gives ample time to do that. It takes work to follow but it pays off in such a profound way that every time I watch Memento I feel like a cinematic miracle has taken place.
It is Christopher Nolan's masterpiece (so far, Inception is coming so I reserve judgement), a brilliant noir film, one of the most exciting and successful formal experiments in narrative I have ever seen and easily one of the best films of the decade.