Culture Trips

Memento at 20: Christopher Nolan’s memory thriller is hard to forget | Memento

The first time I encountered Memento, at the 2000 Toronto film festival, it was one of those rare buzz magnets that nobody has on their schedule at the beginning of the festival, but everyone rushes to squeeze in towards the end. Christopher Nolan was still an unknown quantity, having only directed the little-seen DIY thriller Following, and the film was being screened at the Uptown, in one of the chilly dungeons underneath the gorgeous theater reserved for bigger premieres and Midnight Madness screenings.

This was long before Nolan was the obscure Creator-God of Hollywood, enhancing his mystique by retreating from press and public appearances. When the screening was over, he stood in front of the audience just like every other film-maker, and it was one of the most remarkable public Q&As I’ve ever witnessed. There were no grueling multi-part questions or embarrassing personal requests for advice Nolan might have for a young director. People were simply asking him, in granular detail, to explain what the hell they had just seen. There wasn’t a note of hostility to the questioning, either, as there might have been for a film-maker who wasn’t clear in his storytelling or who left behind a few loose plot threads or red herrings. Nolan’s film was a mile ahead of the audience, and they were eager to catch up.

In retrospect, the gaggle of festivalgoers hanging on his every word felt like the beginning of the Nolan cult, which would grow right along his ambition to infuse spectacle with deeper insight into the human mind and the turbulence within our culture and within ourselves. It was also, of course, a fitting exercise in how we create narratives out of a patchwork of memories that aren’t always easily accessed or ordered or even that reliable. In fact, it’s possible that my memory of the Memento Q&A at Tiff isn’t perfectly accurate: maybe it wasn’t as epic a session as it seemed or maybe I’m mischaracterizing an audience that might have been more irritated with Nolan than productively confused.

Memento would go on an odd journey afterwards, picking up a screenwriting award at Sundance the following year (after a UK release months earlier) but falling to a small, now-defunct distributor, Newmarket Films, after others felt the film would frustrate audiences. Now 20 years later, Nolan’s neo-noir puzzle box plays like one of the key artworks of the 21st century, predicting an era where reality is more a personal, selective construct of comforting biases than a widely agreed-upon set of facts. The hero of Memento is Leonard Shelby, a “freak” whose short-term memory loss had led him to piece together clues in a murder mystery out of Polaroids and tattoos, certain that his system will yield the truth about his wife’s death. His certainty is a mistake. His system is being contaminated, not least by himself.

We are all Leonard Shelby. We are all freaks.

Once you get past all the questions about how Memento works, with its cross-stream of scenes going backwards (in color) and forward (in black and white) in time, there’s the devastating revelation that awaits. And it would be an early lesson in how to watch Nolan’s work, which can seem purposefully obscure or gimmicky on first viewing, but often yields a big emotional reaction on the second or third or fourth. He has more faith in audiences than the distributors who passed on Memento, and his stubbornness on this front has only calcified over time. (Tenet, his most recent film, may be his most difficult to crack.)

Memento sounds like a movie disease, but in fact it’s a real one: Leonard (Guy Pearce) has anterograde amnesia, a condition that prevents him from storing recent memories while keeping long-term memories intact. He can remember everything that happened to him until his wife’s rape and murder, but his mind has been a sieve every day after that. The film starts with an action Leonard takes to avenge his wife’s death, then follows the breadcrumbs that led him to that place, including relationships with shady characters like Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), who may be manipulating his condition to their own ends. At the same time, we follow Leonard forward in a black-and-white conversation he’s having on a motel phone with … someone, and we flash back to his time as an insurance investigator, when he met Sammy Jenkis (Stephen Tobolowsky), a client with the same affliction.

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Photograph: Allstar/NEWMARKET

Working from the short story Memento Mori by his brother, Jonathan, who has lately been toying with the same themes on the HBO series Westworld, Nolan has written a noir so stripped-down it would be insultingly simple in straight chronology, but it’s still a constant challenge, even in the umpteenth viewing, to keep up with the back-stepping in time. There’s not much competition for the prize, but Memento is Nolan’s funniest film, exploiting every opportunity to score jokes off Leonard’s disorientation, like planting him in the middle of a shootout where he doesn’t know whether he’s the chaser or if he’s being chased. Or a subtler gag where we learn in one scene why a barfly is laughing in another. At the same time, a startling pair of scenes where Natalie sadistically manipulates him draws suspense from the frantic, hapless search for a pen.

Memento takes, as a starting point, the idea that memories are the building blocks of what makes us human: they inform our sense of self, our relationships with other people, our basic grounding in time and space. And in a genre known for unreliable narrators, memory makes for a shifty central character, telling Leonard (and us) things that turn out not to be true. But the coldest splash of water in the face is learning that Leonard is manipulating himself as egregiously as the motel manager who’s charging him for two rooms or the femme fatale who’s using him like a blunt instrument. He chooses the story he wants to believe, and it inks his soul with a permanence of a tattoo or a Polaroid.

“So you lie to yourself to be happy,” Teddy tells him. “We all do.” That Leonard’s lies circle around a hole in this life – or, more poignantly, the once-warm spot in his bed that’s now vacated – doesn’t bring him happiness, but they do ritualistically salve his grief and give him purpose. If he did not lie to himself, he would have to come to terms with the fact that he’ll never know whether one day has passed or weeks or months, or that no system can bring him past the moment his wife was killed. He might not be the hero of his own story. That’s too much for any of us to face.

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