Friday, October 8, 2010

Film Friday: Memento (2000)

A couple weeks back, we talked about the incredible human brain and its ability to take events that are out of sequence and put them back into their proper order. Nothing highlights this better than Memento, a psychological thriller written and directed by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception). Memento is the story of a man who can’t make new memories, and what makes the film really stand out is the way Nolan tells the story. He tells it backwards.

** spoiler alert **

Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce -- L.A. Confidential) is a former insurance fraud investigator who suffers from a condition called anterograde amnesia. This is an actual medical condition which renders the brain incapable of storing new memories. Essentially, the sufferer has all of their memories up to the point of injury, but cannot remember anything that happens thereafter. Leonard got this condition when he was struck on the head as his wife was raped and murdered. That's the last memory he has. He has spent every waking moment since that attack tracking down the killer: “John G.” To aid him in this search, Leonard has the police file and his mysterious friend (Joe Pantoliano). Also, since he can’t make new memories, he takes Polaroid photos and writes cryptic notes to himself on these Polaroids, notes like “don’t trust him.” He also tattoos important rules on his body, things like “never answer the phone.”

The story begins with Leonard killing a man named Teddy, who he believes to be John G. This scene is in color. The story then shifts to a black and white scene with Leonard sitting in a hotel room telling someone on the telephone about his condition and what he’s been doing. The story then shifts back to a color scene, only this scene takes place before Leonard killed Teddy and it ends right at the moment the first color scene begins. It takes a moment to understand what is going on, but what Nolan is doing is telling the story in two parts by alternating the black and white scenes with the color scenes, each of which last only a few minutes. The black and white scenes are told in chronological order, whereas the color scenes are told in reverse chronological order (during the opening credits you actually see a scene running backwards, but that is the only time Nolan does that).

While this sounds confusing, it turns out to be a brilliant choice. By telling the story backwards, Nolan gives the audience a sense of confusion similar to what Leonard experiences. Basically, each scene begins without any idea of what has come before that scene. Thus, for example, Leonard may find himself holding a gun, but he has no idea where the gun came from or what he was doing with it. And since we are in the same boat as Leonard because of the reverse-chronological order of the film, we likewise have no more idea than Leonard where the gun came from. Similarly, we have no idea who the people around him are or what they may have done or said only a few minutes prior. Hence, we are just as lost and disoriented as Leonard. Can he trust the weeping woman who needs his help (Carrie-Anne Moss -- The Matrix) or the hotel clerk who’s exploited Leonard's condition to rent him multiple rooms? Who is Teddy really? We don’t know, and neither does Leonard. (Interestingly, experts on anterograde amnesia agree that what Nolan has created is similar to what people with anterograde amnesia actually experience.)

But unlike Leonard, we have one advantage that really makes this film pay off -- we know his future because we’ve already seen the ending and are working our way backwards through the story. This brings us to Nolan’s second achievement. By going this route, Nolan converts what would otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill film into a stunning story with a constant barrage of twists. Almost every scene involves revelations that change the entire complexion of the story, as we learn about the real motivations of the characters, we learn what Leonard’s notes mean, and we learn why Leonard has taken the steps he takes. Indeed, with each scene we find ourselves reinterpreting the events that we know will take place to fit the new facts we’ve uncovered. The result is a puzzle that grows with complexity as you get closer to its solution.

While this is going on, the interwoven black and white scenes have Leonard telling us how his condition came about and he describes a man he met with the same condition: Sammy Jankis. Leonard investigated Sammy for insurance fraud, and we learn that Sammy’s tail ended tragically because of Sammy’s wife’s inability to understand what was really happening to Sammy, which was caused by Leonard’s insistence that Sammy was faking. Without giving too much away, this raises questions about divine retribution or karma, what is memory, is there a part of us that learns by instinct rather than through the conscious making of memories, and what makes us who we are. There is even a twist regarding Sammy that adds a whole new layer to this story, though I won’t give it away here, except to say that maybe Leonard doesn’t have true amnesia, but instead wants to believe he cannot make new memories. Indeed, there is considerable evidence for this when you find out the real relationship between Teddie and Leonard, and in the fact that Leonard occasionally seems to know things that happened after the injury.

This is a movie you should see. It’s intelligent with great acting, gripping story-telling, and amazing surprises. This film presents a fascinating look at what it would be like to have true amnesia and it gives us a classic example of the power of our minds to assemble a complete story from out-of-order pieces -- as well as the limitations on that power. Indeed, the main theme to the story seems to be about those limitations, specifically how easily we can be manipulated, even by ourselves, when we lack full knowledge.

I highly recommend this film.

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Ed said...

Great film! Before I comment, what's your policy on spoilers?

CrispyRice said...

Agreed - great film! It's been ages since I've seen it, though. Definitely time for a re-watch!

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, We would ask people to avoid giving out significant spoilers. And if you are going to give out any spoilers, please let people know.

As you can see in the article, I try to avoid spoilers that I think would ruin the film, and just routinely warn that some spoilers will be given because I'm more interested in discussing the films than just reviewing them or recommending them.

In this case, I tried to avoiding given out much in the way of plot because I think what this film offers more than anything are the twists and I didn't want to ruin it.

AndrewPrice said...

Cirspy, I saw it years ago and then every couple years, and then again before I wrote this article. It definitely holds up.

Unknown said...

Andrew: I agree on both the movie and the script. I would also add that I think Guy Pierce is a grossly underrated actor.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I agree completely with that. I've been impressed with everything he's done. What's even more interesting, the first couple times I saw him, I had no idea he was Australian -- his American accent was that convincing.

Unknown said...

Andrew: I first saw him in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. So I knew he was Australian, but I thought he was 6'5" and gay. Now that's acting. LOL

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I didn't see that until after I saw him in L.A. Confidential. And you're right, he did a great job in that one too. I honestly can't think of anything he's done where I thought his acting wasn't great. He is, as you say, very underrated.

Anonymous said...

This is a movie I've been wanting to see for a long time, but have just never gotten around to it.

I've only seen one movie with Guy Pearce in it - The Count of Monte Cristo - and I thought he did a really good job in that. He had me really despising his character by the end of the movie.


Tam said...

This is on my all time favorites list. I'm with CrispyRice...time for a re-watch!

AndrewPrice said...

TJ, This movie is well worth seeing. It's amazing how it develops, because everything is turned on its head. Every scene literally contains information that surprises you. And by the time you reach the ending, it's got amazing twists in it, which you will never see coming.

Plus, I think the scenes with Sammy and his wife are really fascinating to watch and build to the point of becoming downright tragic.

If you watch it, please come back and tell us what you thought about it!

In terms of Pierce, let me recommend L.A. Confidential. That was a good book and an even better movie about some corrupt cops in LA in the 1950s. Pierce plays a fascinating character in that one who kind of vacillates between being a hero and being corrupt. It's also got Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey an Danny DeVito in some really great roles. I highly recommend it.

AndrewPrice said...

Tam, You have great taste in movies! This is also one of my favorite films.

I thought this was one of the most interesting movies I'd ever seen when I saw it for the first time, and it has held up. It's just amazing how we can manage to put the story back together despite being shown to us backwards, and it's fascinating to see the twists and turns from the perspective of knowing how they will play out before you even see what they are.

Plus, I always find myself thinking about the whole Sammy thing and how that plays out and I always wonder what our real capacity is for tricking ourselves? In other words, it's the kind of movie that keeps me thinking well after leaving the theater, and I really appreciate that.

T_Rav said...

Never seen it, but after watching the Batman movies, The Prestige, and most recently Inception (which I still don't fully understand), I would submit that Chris Nolan is the best director we have right now. My interest in Memento is definitely piqued.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, He's on a definite hot streak. As I mention above, I completely recommend this film. It's fascinating on many levels and is very enjoyable. It's also the kind of film that you periodically find yourself thinking about long after you've seen it.

If you watch, come back and let us know what you thought!

Ed said...

Ok, I'll try to tread carefully.

******** SPOILER ALERT ********

I thought this was a great movie. From the beginning they give you hints to not trust anything he tells you. As the story moves forward (or backward ;D) you see him picking and choosing the facts he wants to believe. When he’s told something he doesn’t like you see him just dismiss it, like when Teddy tells him that he’s not who he thinks he is and that he should be investigating himself. I thought that was the best line in this film: “no, that’s who you were, you don’t know who you’ve become.”

I also never saw the ending (beginning ;D) coming. The did such a great job of giving you so many possibilities it was impossible to cut through it to see what was going to happen. In one way, the seems kind of like cheating, but it really isn’t. It’s really just a matter of getting more and more facts that give you more possibilities.

I also thought doing it backward was really smart. I’ve trying to think of how this movie would go if you ran it forward and it just isn’t that great a movie. If you run it forward it’s an average film about a guy who is being manipulated. By turning it around, they turned this into a real mystery. I don’t think you could duplicate this anymore because it would see like a duplicate, but it’s really brilliant.

Ed said...

I think that's my longest comment ever. LoL! Also, I wanted to tell you that I love the film articles! Keep up the good work.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ed, I enjoy the film articles a lot. They're the most fun to write.

On the points you make, I agree. There are hints from the very beginning that he's picking and choosing what he wants to believe. And I think the scene in the car is the perfect example of that -- I like that line as well. He's basically telling Teddy that he's going to believe what he wants to believe. And Teddy hits him later with a series of questions that suddenly strike you with a sense of "wow, I hadn't thought about that" -- like the fact that he has no idea how long he's been doing what's doing or that he knows nothing about what happened in that time.

In terms of using this approach again, I supposed you could, but it would need to feel different and I'm not sure exactly how you would do that.

Tennessee Jed said...

Great picture, albeit a lot of hard work the first time through. Not only the confusion that exists, but it was, like so many other modern films, shot "dark." In other words, make sure you are fully alert and awake when you view and commit to a minimum opf two screenings.

In my mind, Momento was vastly superior to the French Film Irreversible which came out shortly afterwards. It too had it's scenes run backwards. However, Monica Belluci (The Matrix movies) was involved in possibly the most disturbing rape scene in film history. Along with the fight at the "end" of the movie, it just is too dark and violent for all but the most hardened movie watchers. Irreversible was clearly from the "shock and awe" school of French film making.

Chris Nolan is an interesting and talented writer and director. He uses many of the devices from Momento in his other films. I particularly also enjoyed "The Prestige."

Doc Whoa said...

Awesome movie! Great description of this as a puzzle which gets harder as you get near solving it. That's exactly what this is!

Ed said...

I've been thinking about if you could use this same style for another movie and I'm just not sure you could. I guess you probably really could and I just don't see it, but right now I can't see it. I know I would love to see another movie try it. Can you think of any other movie that has done anything similar?

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, This is indeed one of those movies that you should see twice so that you can see all of the clever clues tossed at you that you keep missing. Fortunately, it holds up even to repeated viewings, so it's not the kind of film where you feel like it has nothing to offer once you've seen it.

I agree about Nolan too. He seems to build on his work, always improving and not afraid to reach back into the past for something he's done before that works. But to his credit, he doesn't just keep making the same movie, which lots of directors seem to do after they get a hit.

I have not seen Irreversible. In fact, I'm not even sure I've heard of it. I'm always looking for interesting foreign films. . . which are surprisingly difficult to come by. So perhaps I'll give it a try?

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Doc, it seemed like the most accurate description.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I think you could use this "gimmick" again, but you'd have to use it differently.

In terms of similar movies, the one that immediately leaps to mind is Pulp Fiction which is presented in segments that are out of order.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - I suppose it cannot hurt, especially given the discussions about Memento. "Irreversible" has a theme of how little actions by the lead characters, seemingly innocuous keep leading "irreversibly" towards a tragic result. It is very gritty film dealing in part with the gay rough trade scene in Paris. I got the DVD in a used bargain bin. I think there were comparisons to Memento by critics on the cover.The acting is extremely professional. Just be prepared for a couple disturbing scenes that may haunt your brain for awhile afterwards.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks for the warning Jed. If it's well done, then I don't mind the subject matter -- I've seen a lot of strange, gross and disturbing stuff. And in this case, I am quite interested in seeing something that tries the same "backwards plotting" that Memento does, even if it involves an unpleasant subject. I'm curious to see how they managed it, i.e. what their take is on it.

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