It is an axiom of the film industry that strong narrative movies are driven by the question what happens next? Christopher Nolan's Memento, while telling a quite riveting tale, manages to up-end normal narrative expectations by making us ask, at every point, what happened last?
At first glance, this is one of those projects based on a tricky conceit: its plot is structured backwards, calmly proceeding from the final scene back to the first. This is not an altogether new device; Jane Campion's telemovie Two Friends (scripted by Helen Garner) used it, as well as the film of Harold Pinter's play Betrayal (1983).
What justifies the technique here is that the frazzled hero, Leonard (Guy Pearce), suffers from acute loss of short-term memory. Within minutes of something happening to him, he needs to get his bearings by reviewing his personal store of notes, tattoos and annotated polaroids.
This would be hard going even for a placid character, but it is especially anxiety-producing for Leonard since he is embroiled in a web of crime, murder and deceit, driven to avenge the murder of his wife. Nolan's construction of the piece makes us share Leonard's dilemma: as each new scene begins, we have to quickly reshuffle the pieces of information we have already gathered.
Many horror films and mystery-thrillers hinge on the murky memory of a past event; indeed, most classics in the film noir genre (such as Out of the Past, 1947) make extended, elaborate use of flashbacks.
However, by making the faculty of recall a problem for Leonard at every single moment, Memento generates a level of enigma and a degree of tension that are novel. Pearce does his best work to date with his unusual role.
This is a near impossible film to review, because to give away even the first of many plot revelations completely spoils its pleasure. Suffice to say, Nolan's script (based on a story by his brother Jonathan) plants early on what will generate its essential mystery and intrigue: the possibility that Leonard's grasp on his memories can be manipulated by others.
Nolan takes a few liberties with the purity of the backwards structure. He adds an ongoing telephone conversation that acts as an explanatory, framing device and a smattering of flashbacks involving Leonard's wife. But even these extras turn out to hold disorienting shocks and surprises.
It is the kind of tale in which every person the hero meets is suspicious and potentially evil. This places special demands on the actors, who have to play on two levels at once: they must seem transparent but also sinister. As Leonard's mysterious accomplices, Joe Pantoliano as Teddy and Carrie-Anne Moss as Natalie handle this double game expertly.
Memento partly belongs to a family of films including Suture (1993), Office Killer (1998) and Poison (1991): highly cerebral, sometimes schematic works informed by the precepts of contemporary film theory. In many such works, the trappings of a popular genre are seized upon because they provide some intellectual allegory of the film-viewing experience – what it means to gaze at a screen, follow a plot or identify emotionally with an illusory character.
Memento manages to transcend this particular ghetto by never forgetting that, first and last, it must work as an engaging story. Happily, this superbly crafted film is never overwhelmed by its own cleverness.
MORE Nolan: Batman Begins
© Adrian Martin April 2001