Written By Nguyen Manh Quoc Trung
Memento (1999) left me in a genuine state of shock and bewilderment. I was blown away. The film made me think deeply about the reasons why I kept rewatching director Christopher Nolan’s other movies like Inception (2010), The Dark Knight (2008), or The Prestige (2006) over and over again, but always put Memento aside, the director’s first feature-length effort that often gets overshadowed by his more-popular and mainstream works. In preparation for Nolan’s Tenet (2020), which just hit theaters a couple of months ago, I decided to do a mini-marathon of Nolan’s films, and after watching Memento, I could only feel anger toward myself for not watching it sooner. The film changed my perceptions on screenwriting and regular storytelling completely, and had I watched it perhaps three or four years earlier, it would have changed my views on cinema entirely as well.
The story of Memento is simple enough: the protagonist Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is determined to find the person who murdered his wife and damaged his memory with a blow to the head, with one of the only clues being the name “John G.” Having anterograde amnesia (a case of short-term memory loss) and unable to create new memories of events that happen around 15 minutes or so earlier, he uses sticky notes, polaroid photos, and even tattoos as external memories, reminding himself of memories that he will sure to forget. But because his memory relies entirely on notes or photos, these external materials can also be taken advantage of by others, such as overwriting new notes, burning photos, or saying two wholly contradictory pieces of information after 15 minutes, before Leonard has the chance to write down what he needs to. Throughout the course of his self-investigation, the mystery of his wife’s murder is untangled, and along with it the truths about the name John G. and Leonard’s seemingly-forgotten past.
The film’s murder-mystery-with-a-twist premise is already very intriguing by itself, but one of the most memorable viewing experiences that all of Memento’s audiences can agree on is how director and screenwriter Christopher Nolan tells the story of Leonard in a way more effective than any other suspense movie or novel. The film is characterized by a unique non-linear narrative that is shot in reverse, with the opening scene being Leonard having already found out who is the killer of his wife, the person he has always been seeking. Memento then “backtracks”, with the rest of the film slowly revealing details about how Leonard has come to this conclusion, and what he has done in an investigation that is itself layer after layer of complexity. For the sake of comparison, Memento is very similar to director Ryan Johnson’s Knives Out (2019) in this aspect: both films revolve around a murder-mystery; both feature a hard-boiled detective; both reveal the identity of the murderer very early into the film; and both place more weight on the journey of the protagonist to reach a decisive solution to the case rather than the solution itself, with a twist at the end.
However, being released 19 years before Knives Out, Memento’s method of storytelling is much more unique in the fact that the way the film tells its story is also an allusion to a particular trait of the protagonist and the film’s most important plot point: his anterograde amnesia. By showing, on screen, the consequences of an event before the event itself even happens, Nolan forces the audience to put themselves in Leonard’s shoes, to feel what it is like to be unable to form new memories, to experience the struggle of the protagonist when he suddenly finds himself in a particular incident but has no recollection of how that incident had occurred, nor his role in it. When the past (the events happen in the film) becomes the future (the film’s runtime), perhaps the director wants to emphasize the ambiguity of memory, which is also the ambiguity in Leonard’s persistent journey to find the evildoer. Like another character that keeps reminding Leonard that the person he is right now is not the person he was, Nolan also wants to remind his audience that sometimes the memory of our past is nothing concrete or set in stone; it can be changed not only from the manipulation of others, but also from ourselves. And that, sometimes, the truth is never as simple as what is revealed from a photo, a handwritten piece of note, or a boy tattoo that we all think would last forever.
Memento is the second film made by Christopher Nolan, after a low-budget Following (1998) that he made mostly with his college friends. But personally I consider Memento to be Nolan’s first complete and mature film, a film that highlights his ability as a “time wizard” and set the stage for his trademark layered and nuanced style of filmmaking. Within Memento there is also a series of black-and-white sequences running alternately to the colored sequences, so that at the end of the film both the former and latter merge into a seamless whole, creating one complete story that can be viewed chronologically from beginning to end. Watching a Christopher Nolan’s film is like being presented with a puzzle that, the more you try to solve, the more rewarding it will eventually get.