Marking director Christopher Nolan’s first mainstream success, Memento became his calling card during his early career. Using similar methods of narrative story-telling, which he would expand upon a decade later in Inception, Memento received almost universal critical acclaim upon release. It also marked one of the first major acting roles for former Neighbours star Guy Pearce. While Nolan would go onto huge commercial success with The Dark Knight and Inception, it is Memento that was his first big impact film.
Leonard Shelby (Pearce) awakes in a motel room, confused and unaware of where he is. As he searches through his possessions he finds a series of Polaroid photographs that give instructions, he then notices a series of tattoos with ˜Facts’ about his goal. He is searching for the man who raped and murdered his wife, causing him to lose the ability to create short-term memories. As a result he has created a system using the Polaroids and tattoos that will allow him to continue his investigation.
The great conceit of Memento is that the narrative goes in reverse. We start with the shocking final scene and work backwards to discover how certain elements of the plot came to pass. It’s an incredibly unique form of story-telling that probably owes a little bit toward Pulp Fiction in terms of bravery and originality. While the main narrative continues, we are treated to intercut scenes of a younger Leonard, talking to an unknown person on the phone explaining his condition and various other aspects to his life. This is told in a standard forward timeframe and helps frame the rest of the narrative leading to a culmination of the two timelines in the final scenes.
There are two ways to make a successful early statement as a director, the first being an original, critically-acclaimed film, the second is to make money. Christopher Nolan did both. Memento, from a budget of merely $9m ended up taking over $35m at the box office. This combined with the overwhelming reaction to the film lead to him being offered bigger and bigger projects, like Batman Begins and Inception.
The cast including Joe Pantoliano, Carrie-Anne Moss and Pearce are all exceptional in helping to build the world of a man who is constantly forgetting what has happened to him. Laced with a wry sense of humour and bristling with edge-of-your-seat intrigue, wonderfully executed and perfectly acted, Memento stands the test of time and is one of the most outstanding early works from one of the most successful directors of all time.