Piecing the Story Together: The Legacy of ‘Memento’

Christopher Nolan’s name has popped up extensively in film news over recent months. With fans and audiences starved of the conveyor belt of new movie releases in 2020, in theatres at least, the appearance of Nolan’s Tenet was a shimmering beacon that heralded the return of the cinema experience for many of us.

Some directors labour for years and over a number of feature films to gain this level of recognition that Nolan now has. Most will never even get there. For Nolan, though, it only took the release of his second film, Memento, to earn him the worldwide reputation he has maintained to this day.

Having just celebrated its twentieth anniversary, it’s easy to take Memento’s status as a classic of American post-millennium cinema for granted. In reality, its radical approach to deconstructing its narrative, absence of A-list Hollywood stars, unglamorous landscape of scuzzy LA motels and diners and hokum crime story represented a huge risk for Nolan who only had his low-budget debut film, Following, to fall back on.

Of course, the rest is history as Memento went on to establish itself as a huge success, blasting itself onto the wider cultural consciousness after starting its opening weekend in the US in only 11 cinemas. From there, word-of-mouth for its brilliance and ingenuity sped like wildfire, leading to eventual worldwide box office takings of $40 million — representing over 400% in profit from its initial $9 million budget. Memento’s status as an all-time classic has since been stamped by its position as Number 54 in IMDB’s most popular films, and the BBC ranked it at 25 in the Best Films of the 21st Century so far.

But there has been a growing swell of naysayers and contrarian voices who, in more recent times, have questioned the true merits of Memento away from its initial, rapturous reception. Claiming it as little more than a gimmicky narrative exercise and that its reverse chronological structure has been done before in any manner of better films. It feels apposite to re-champion the merits of Memento as it celebrates the age of 20.

Firstly, in consideration of its back-to-front conceit, it’s important to note that it is not actually an example of reverse chronology (which would literally mean the film playing backwards), but features linear streams of narrative that take us from the end of the story to its beginning. The double whammy of having the story as a riff on the detective genre, and giving its hero, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), the condition of anterograde amnesia (the inability to retain new memories) as he hunts down what he perceives to be the killer of his wife, is why Nolan’s playing with chronology is just so warranted and rewarding. After all, we’ve seen hundreds of humdrum crime narratives before, but Memento toys with seemingly sacrosanct conventions of the genre. What if the hero’s quest wasn’t as worthy as we’d initially been led to believe? What if the statuses of other characters in the story prove equally murky? And what if the clues and evidence that are being used to build up the case are completely unreliable?

As well as the intelligence of playing with time, there’s a simple audience pleasure to be had in piecing the threads of the story together. As each of the strands of the story loops back, there are lovely little echoes or motifs that remind us where the connective tissue is. Some of the most memorable ones range from a man chuckling in a bar after spitting into a tankard of beer (he knows Leonard won’t remember not to drink it) to Leonard waking up bemused by the sight of a bottle in his hand (he’s just clubbed the mysterious Dodd with it), to running through a trailer park trying to work out why he has a gun in his hand (he soon finds out he’s not chasing someone, but being chased by someone). These scenes are a reminder that Nolan is capable of a sense of humour. His Dark Knight trilogy and some of his tech thrillers, Inception and Interstellar, are almost infamous for their po-faced quality, but Memento, at times, is as close to a black comedy as it is more obviously a psychological drama.

One way that Memento does offer a through-line to the Nolan of more recent blockbuster times is through its exploration of the theme of time. From the dream detectives of Inception who are trying to transcend it, and the astronaut of Interstellar who doesn’t age in space while his loved ones do on Earth, to the compressed sky, sea and land narratives of Dunkirk that actually take place over vastly different timeframes, Nolan has always been interested in the simple emotional power of the passing of time. Leonard, in Memento, as a man whose very ability to perceive time has been destroyed by his anterograde amnesia, comments poignantly on this fact when he decides to burn some of his dead wife’s old possessions while musing, “How can I heal if I can’t feel time?”

Nolan is also renowned for having an inner circle of regular collaborators. That trust was probably a necessity given the epic size of his productions from Batman Begins onwards, but even the relatively small-scale Memento was evidence of Nolan’s ability to get top-notch work from his array of creatives. Although he was later to be replaced in favour of Hans Zimmer for future Nolan films, David Julyan’s highly emotive synthesiser score is uncanny at articulating Leonard’s traumatic apprehension of the outside world. There is also cinematographer Wally Pfister, and his brilliant framing and contrasting use of colour and monochrome photography to reflect the dual narrative threads of Leonard pre and post seminal murder. Even Nolan’s younger brother, Jonathan Nolan, at the tender age of 24, was a key component in the film’s construct, with his short story Memento Mori providing the basis for the film’s narrative. Much of the structural complexity can therefore be directly attributed to Jonathan, especially as Christopher Nolan’s films with the most elaborate chronologies and twists, The Prestige and The Dark Knight, were also written by him.

Memento also deserves consideration as one of the great acting ensembles in a film over the last two decades. Every actor just feels inherently right for their roles, fully inhabiting their characters’ complexities. Guy Pearce’s rugged athleticism combined with a sly vein of humour was just right for the part of a man who looks like he’s stumbling from one contingency to another. Recent Matrix alumni, Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano, were both superb as the figurative angel and devil on Leonard’s shoulders, prompting him into certain actions, and whose statuses shift wildly and in direct contrast to each other as the audience begins to piece together more about the truth of Leonard’s situation. Even the support actors, Mark Boone Jr (who was to return in Nolan’s Batman Begins), Stephen Tobolowksy, and Callum Keith Rennie, are integral in their roles that gradually grow in significance as the miasma of Leonard’s condition that has shrouded all the narrative events begins to lift.

There’s almost a certain nostalgia in watching Memento again with 20 years’ perspective. It was the last time Nolan made a movie without a sizeable budget — at least by Hollywood feature film standards. After Tenet, it doesn’t look like Nolan will be returning to his indie roots any time soon. Here’s hoping, though, that at some point in the future, Nolan decides to take inspiration from the sheer micro-ingenuity and precociousness of Memento, to fashion something a little less industrial and bludgeoning than his more recent work.