Wednesday, 28 March 2007
Memento (2001) dir. Christopher Nolan
Starring: Guy Pearce, Carrie Ann-Moss, Joe Pantoliano
Director Christopher Nolan burst onto the Hollywood scene with one of the most ingenius and intelligent thrillers films ever made. The story is told backwards - from the point of view of a man with only his short term memory – we begin with the last scene in the film and work backwards to the beginning. I’ve seen it about 5 times and I still get confused.
Some time ago Leonard’s home was burgled and his wife murdered. The psychological shock caused Leonard to his lose ability to retain memories after the incident – this condition is called anterograde amnesia and is a real diagnosed condition. The Leonard of today is no longer a humble insurance adjustor, he’s a hardened vigilante in the midst of a complex and frustrating search for the killer of his wife. Without memories, the only way he can remember the facts is by tattooing notes to his body. These post-it notes to himself form the pieces of a puzzle for Leonard to find the murderer.
The device could have been just a gimmick, but in fact it’s a clever way to put an audience in the point of view of Leonard. It’s genius really. Like Leonard, with each new scene the audience is constantly in a guessing game as to where he is, what is going on and who the characters are. It’s disorienting but exhilarating and forces the audience to think and participate in the film.
Leonard is ruthless in his journey. The flashback scenes before the accident are very important to his character. The physical difference between Leonard the insurance man and Leonard the vigilante informs the audience of his transformation. Time is not a variable either, as there are no references to go by. We don’t how Leonard long has been searching for the killer, it could be weeks, it could be years.
Leonard’s last memory is the image of his dead wife’s lifeless eyes. This will continue to haunt Leonard for the rest of his life and so his journey, his tattoos and the other details of the search keeps him alive. When the puzzle is solved and the pieces fit together the film moves beyond a gimmicky suspense thriller into a piece of cynical nihilism. When he confronts the reality of his life, Leonard makes a choice to become the murderer – become the person he, himself, is looking for.
“Memento” is a great companion film to Nolan’s other masterpiece “The Prestige.” Leonard is much like Hugh Jackman’s Robert Angier, their obsessions become their demons and they both manage to destroy the moral sides of their existence. In fact, “Memento” is existentialism to the core. From the point of view of a broken man, Leonard is essentially in search for the purpose of life. Jean-Paul Sartre said that ‘values are subjective’ – meaning, there are no objective standards by which humans live their lives; it’s based on individual consciousness. Leonard’s new life cannot be judged or understood objectively by anyone but himself – but, as the audience, by working out the puzzle of his life backwards we become as close as possible to understanding the doomed man. Enjoy.