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2001 neo-noir film directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Guy Pearce

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Do You Remember?

  • Jul 24, 2010
In the late 90's a young film maker by the name of Christopher Nolan was sharing ideas with his brother Johnathan Nolan.  During this time, Johnathan was working on a short story called Memento Mori.  An idea that Christopher Nolan liked.  They spend time sending the story back and forth to one another making changes and edits whenever they felt it possible.  After a while, Christopher Nolan decided it wouldn't make such a bad movie.  From that short story he was inspired to the the film Memento.  After securing a modest budget, Nolan went on to make his movie and it was released in the year 2000.  It was his breakout film.  The one that put him on the books.

We have to talk about the release of Memento briefly.  Because of when it dropped down in the United States a great deal of people seem to think that Memento was made in the year 2001.  It wasn't.  Memento first dropped down in Italy on September 5, 2000 at the Venice Film Festival.  It then went on to be featured in other Festivals.  Its first official release was on October 11, 2000 in France and then got a release in the UK on October 20, 2000.  Memento was making rounds internationally before it hit the United States.  Memento had it's US debut on January 20, 2001 at the Sundance Film Festival... and on March 16, 2001 the film finally got a theatrical release in the United States.  As a result people typically assume the film was made in the year 2001.  It wasn't.  Memento was around for months before it's US release.  But once it got going it managed to keep up a momentum through the year 2001 and turn lots of heads. 

When Memento was first released the story in and of itself was quite amusing.  Guy Pierce plays Leonard Shelby.  A man who suffers from short term memory loss.  There's nothing wrong with his long term memory.  He remembers his life up until the accident.  He can even remember that he has this condition.  It's everything after the incident that caused his short term memory loss that he can't remember.  To compensate, Leonard has a lot of tattoos all over his body and notes plastered around to remind him.  There are simple things, of course.  For example he needs to remind himself to shave.  He uses photos to remind himself of who people are.  But the most important thing to Leonard, is that he is able to find the man who killed his wife and caused his condition in the first place.  As he gathers information he meets people able to help him.  There's Teddy, a police officer who is about the only person Leonard can call "friend" (although Leonard never remembers him when he shows up) and there's Natalie, a woman who is also willing to help him piece things together.

The whole, "I need to avenge the death of my wife," is something that's been done time and time again in movies.  On the other hand, not quite with the "short term memory loss," and not with the idea that the main hero is in need of figuring out who he is as well.  Because of the amusing condition, Memento is filmed in a very different way.  Instead of being completely forward, what Memento opts to do instead is show you a particular scene where something happens.  The next scene usually shows the events which lead up to the scene you just saw.  Going from Z all the back to A.  It's not necessarily Leonard's quest to avenge his wife that's interesting... it's Leonard himself and piecing these snapshots together.  What's also interesting is how he deals with his short term memory and how he deals with those around him.  This small little twist helps make Memento feel fresh.  It's also one of the most heavily criticized aspects of the film.  There were a few critics quick to jump and say that this in and of itself felt rather gimmicky.  And that presenting the story backwards was also gimmicky.  Had Memento been filmed forward it wouldn't have been an interesting film.

Which explains why it was done backwards.  The opening scene opens with a bullet that goes back into its casing and back into the gun it came from to show you that this is how the movie is going to be presented.  It might come off as gimmicky at first, but it only takes one or two viewings (multiple viewings is something many Nolan films require) to grasp just why Nolan and company did the movie in this particular way.  Doing so otherwise would've made Memento kind of boring.  The story wouldn't be quite as amusing.  And the short term memory loss might not have been as appealing either.  The choice for the Z to A approach is a creative choice.  Although if you have the DVD there is an option to watch the movie forward, which actually helps in understanding the film better.

There aren't just moments where it's presented backwards.  There are interludes sprinkled into the story in which we get to hear Leonard talk about his condition.  If anything, what makes Memento so good is that Leonard Shelby just so happens to be an interesting character.  The more we learn about him, the more we come to sympathize with him... even pity him.  This is because Guy Pierce is charming in his role, despite being a hardened guy.  We get to dive into his own mind. 

Memento was also our moment where we'd see just how Nolan would be as a film maker.  Nolan has presented stories where he has spliced in flashbacks (Batman Begins, Inception) or told stories in a non-linear fashion (The Prestige, Memento) and he's actually fairly good at it.  Memento isn't such a bad breakout movie in the long run.  If the telling of the story backwards or the editing tricks had turned out terrible, then yes one could easily dismiss Memento as a horrible experiment in cinema.  But it worked out well, in the long run.  Memento has a spot in the top 50 of the IMDB's top 250 for instance.  It has often been labeled as one of the greatest thrillers ever made. 

That's not to say Memento is filled with action.  In fact, it would go on to show one of Nolan's other specialties as a film maker.  That Nolan puts you in the midst of a lot of talking and exposition.  There isn't too much "explaining" in Memento... it's just that those who describe Memento as an action movie aren't entirely right to do so.  There's a lot of dialog and even a bit of philosophy about identity.  If the dialog were less interesting, Memento would be a bore.  But it actually makes for some thought provoking moments.  It's hard to say whether or not the film ends on a happy note or not.  Without spoiling anything, I can only say that it ends with some ambiguity.  Viewers are free to speculate for themselves just how the story ends and to answer any question they have themselves.  The two most talked about aspects of Memento's ending both have tons of evidence in the film itself to back it up.  In short, Memento might provoke discussion.  It's a mind bender.  It wouldn't be the last time Christopher Nolan did this either. 

Comedy isn't something that Nolan dwells into a lot.  Memento has a couple of humorous moments, but for the most part Memento is a stone faced film that takes itself very seriously.  It helps the performances more than hinders.  The characters involved seem to react to Leonard with disbelief when they first meet him.  We eventually get drawn into the story of Memento because the way the characters react is natural.  From watching as some characters don't believe Leonard to watching as some try their best to take advantage of his situation when they find out it's real.  The moments of taking advantage in some spots provide a small inkling of comedy, but not a whole lot.  What it does do, however, is help the audience sympathize and understand Leonard more.  When the innkeeper decides to try and charge him for two rooms we want to laugh, but in reality it's a good way of getting the audience to pity poor Leonard.

All this mixes in well to make Memento a great film.  It's a very character driven film.  Almost a study.  We're hoping that Leonard will be able to find the man who killed his wife.  Yet the movie, as I said, likes to throw in things that make you think and consider.  A lot of the time when movies leave things a little too open to interpretation the results are terrible.  Memento is a rare film in which there's a lot left open by the end... but the interpretations you can draw are well enough supported by the film that there's a chance to discuss rather than actually looking for a right answer.  It's nice.  It also means that Memento is a movie best viewed more than once in order to pick up on everything.  There's a lot thrown at you.

I mentioned at the beginning that Memento was based off of a story called Memento Mori written by Chris's brother Johnathan.  The idea with the film Memento and the story Memento Mori is very similar.  For example Memento Mori is also about a man with short term memory who wants to avenge his wife's murder.  On the other hand, the two tales are very different.  The Nolan brothers seemed interested in the idea, but Christopher seemed a bit more interested in doing his own thing while leaving his brothers story well enough alone.  In short, Memento isn't really like Memento Mori at all.  Both stories share specific thematic similarities but the stories themselves are very different.  You can read Memento Mori here.  It's a short story.  Both stories are about a character with short term memory loss that use notes and photos to help themselves remember.  But Memento has more depth, thought provocation and is a bit more ambiguous.  Memento Mori is much more straightforward.  The circumstances of the characters are also very different.  In Memento Mori, the main character (named Earl not Leonard) is actually in an institution because of his memory condition and spends time writing himself letters and quickly forgetting he wrote them... and then reading them later.  Lastly, Memento Mori doesn't end with quite the openness and ambiguity of Memento.  It's almost as if the two shared and idea and came up with their own unique stories centered around the idea.  In either case, Memento is a much more enticing than Memento Mori.  Mostly because Memento is willing to dive.  Memento Mori in comparison is a very well written short story, but doesn't opt to really dive the way Memento does.

In short, Memento isn't really much of an adaptation.  If it's an "adaptation," of Johnathan Nolan's short story it's a horrible one.  If the two weren't related any onlooking reader would wonder, "Did Christopher Nolan even read Memento Mori?"  But that's hardly the case.  The two stories are very different, but both are still good.  Christopher Nolan was inspired to do Memento because of his brother's short story.  The end result was... well, a career. 

Of all of Nolan's films, Memento may still be the most interesting of them all.  The style is very unique and very different.  Memento isn't a movie that's for everyone.  If you're the type that goes to see thrillers for tense moments and blazing action... Memento doesn't have much of that.  What it does have, however, is a story in which the characters are emotionally appealing and the dialog can be intellectually stimulating.  For Christopher Nolan fans who enjoyed his later films such as Inception or The Dark Knight... they owe it to themselves to watch Memento. 

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July 25, 2010
I saw this film a few years ago and I did not understand a damn thing in it I saw it again recently and it made more sense now then it did then and I actually love it now it stands as one of my favorite Nolan films alongside "The Dark Knight", "Insomnia", "Batman Begins" and "Inception". Excellent review.
July 25, 2010
This still stands as my favorite Nolan film--you should see Peppermint Candy by Lee Chang Dong. Same style in screenplay but darn, it was so depressing! Excellent review as always, Sean!
July 25, 2010
I love this film. I'm not sure which of Nolan's films I like the best, but this, the two Batman films, and "The Prestige" are definitely my favorites. I look forward to seeing "Inception" at some point over the next week.
July 24, 2010
Interesting movie from what I've heard. Thank you for the review. I always think of Nolan and Batman but he just made that Inception movie too. Maybe it's time to see this movie one of these days.
More Memento reviews
review by . March 11, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
**** out of ****     Reverse-chronological story-telling isn't anything too new, but let me tell you; reverse-chronological story-telling, as told by Christopher Nolan, IS indeed quite new to all of us. Nolan typically enjoys challenging his audience with his mind-games, and this is one of his first grand masterpieces. He's had a damn good career so far; and "Memento" essentially put him on the map as a twisty, psychological genius. "Memento" is his best film, among others; gritty, …
Quick Tip by . February 03, 2011
Can you really tell a story backwards and have the viewer still able to follow it. Memento succeeds, amazingly.
review by . July 14, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
   Memento is one of those rare movies that is both entertaining and educational at the same time.  Chris Nolan’s minimalist style and set up make the most out of a stellar premise to craft a movie that is highly thrilling and dramatic, in none of the traditional Hollywood senses of the words.  Guy Pierce’s best work, in my opinion, comes in this film in his portrayal of Leonard, who suffers from short-term memory loss.  Short-term memory loss is a real issue …
Quick Tip by . October 01, 2010
A film to be watched again and again. Nothing quite like it. Not one for watchers who can't concentrate. Complex and consistent.
Quick Tip by . July 27, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Christopher Nolan best work. A masterpiece of film. Amazing piece of writing combined with great editing and acting.
Quick Tip by . July 26, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Great concept from an amazingly smart director. It is nice to go to movies that do a little bit of brain flexing. On top of that Guy Pearce, one of the best below-the-radar actors, nails the role. A must see.
Quick Tip by . July 26, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Great concept from an amazingly smart director. It is nice to go to movies that do a little bit of brain flexing. On top of that Guy Pearce, one of the best below-the-radar actors, nails the role. A must see.
review by . July 13, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
-What Prompted You to write a Review?   This Movie to me really stands out among all the rest of the clutter. It takes a different approach to storytelling. Instead of the traditional forward-organizational-storytelling this starts from the end and builds up to the beginning, all the way keeping the audience interested.     -How was the Plot, Acting, Direction?   Acting overall was good, but the part played by Guy Pearce was Superb, he played his part perfectly …
review by . March 15, 2009
I loved this movie... so much so that I made it my screen name :). And I'm surprised that so many people haven't seen it, nearly a decade after its release.    Looking around at the world of film today, it's hard to find any fresh ideas. Memento has that freshness... by the metric ton. What a concept! A movie told in reverse chronological order, it's plot line places you inside of Lenny's (played by Guy Pearce) head... so much so that you actually become Lenny and experience …
review by . December 23, 2008
posted in Screen Gems
A Deceptive Thriller
With his second feature film, director Christopher Nolan (Following) created a stunning thriller. Not only is Memento an incredible accomplishment as a film, but also an impressive feat for a relatively new filmmaker. The film's screenplay, which was written by Nolan and was inspired by his brother Jonathan's short story, is nothing short of brilliant. The story taps the best ideas from both classic noir and detective films of the late 1940s, as well as more contemporary psychological suspense films, …
About the reviewer
Sean A. Rhodes ()
Ranked #7
I'm a more analytical person. I believe that the purpose of the review is not for me to give you my opinion but for me to give you an analysis and help you decide if you want to get it. If you reading … more
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About this movie


MEMENTO, the second feature by writer-director Christopher Nolan (FOLLOWING), is an intricately constructed film noir that masterfully inverts time to comment on the foggy relationship between memory and truth. MEMENTO tells the story of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a former insurance investigator who witnesses a brutal attack on his wife. Knocked unconscious, Leonard wakes up with a rare brain condition--he no longer possesses short-term memory. He can remember his name and all the details of his past, but he can no longer make new memories. Armed with a careful system of remembering details (he compulsively snaps Polaroids and scribbles notes, then tattoos the important facts directly onto his body), the distraught Leonard goes on a manhunt to avenge his wife's death. To illustrate the unique and frightening state of the protagonist's mind (he cannot remember what happened even seconds before), Nolan takes a brilliantly successful risk in telling the story backwards. The film begins with Leonard killin...
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Director: Christopher Nolan
Genre: Drama
Release Date: 2001, January 19, 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 1hr 56min
Studio: Columbia Pictures
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