Memento is the latest in the wave of dark, brain-bending, twisty thrillers to come in the wake of 1995’s influential The Usual Suspects. In some ways, arguably, it may be the most technically accomplished. The Usual Suspects, and later films like The Sixth Sense and Fight Club, were each based on a riddle, and the last scene provided the key. In Memento, every scene is a key, and every scene is a riddle; every scene explains the scene prior to itself, and is in turn itself explained by the scene that follows.
That’s due to writer-director Christopher Nolan’s unique storytelling structure: Scenes are sequenced in reverse chronological order, so that the first thing you see is the end of the story, and then the second scene shows you what led up to the first, and the third shows you what led up to the second, and so on, with a little bit of overlap each time. (These scenes are separated by a secondary, forward-running thread, filmed in sepia tones, mostly involving the protagonist on the phone. These two threads eventually converge, although it’s so subtle most viewers will miss it.) As a result, the audience never knows where the protagonist has been, although we increasingly understand where he’s going.
This device — unfairly dismissed by some critics as a mere gimmick — creates an experience that in one way resembles that of the protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce). Leonard suffers from a unique trauma-related condition that prevents him from retaining new memories. It’s amnesia in reverse: The amnesiac remembers only his life after his trauma; Leonard remembers only his life before. He knows his name, his past history, everything — up to a point. The last thing he remembers is failing to prevent the rape and murder of his wife.
Since then, Leonard has been living in a fog, aware only of whatever has happened in the last few minutes before the memories drift away from him. Like the audience, Leonard never knows how he’s gotten to wherever he happens to be at the moment. Where the similarity breaks down, of course, is that Leonard also has no idea where he’s going.
In spite of this, Leonard’s goal in life is to avenge his wife by finding and killing her attacker. Driving his crusade are notes to himself, some scratched on bits of paper, others written (sometimes tattooed) on his body, still others scribbled on an all-important collection of Polaroid pictures that are his only solid connection to where he’s been, who he’s met, and what he’s learned.
One photo shows him the hotel where he’s staying so he can find his way back each night. Others are mug shots of perennial strangers like Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) that he didn’t know before his trauma and will always be meeting for the first time. "Don’t believe his lies" says the picture of Teddy, and of Natalie he reads "She will help you out of pity."
How did he learn these things? He doesn’t know, and neither do we. Like Leonard himself, we must simply trust that he had good reason to write what he did. One of the best things about watching Memento is finding out, as the story unfolds backards, where these notes came from. It’s an eye-opening experience; and if, in the end, unanswered questions remain, that’s not necessarily a flaw. In fact, it may be part of the point: How often does real life provide us with definitive answers for every question?
Yet to the degree that Memento finally does tell us in the end what is really going on, and why, and who is responsible, suddenly it all falls apart instead of coming together. While I was watching the film, I cared about Leonard’s crusade; it’s hard not to feel for a man who says things like "How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?" and "My wife deserves vengeance whether I remember it or not." Yet in the end, the film’s final bit of cleverness rips this point of identification away from us, and we’re suddenly left with a mere puzzle movie, not a story we can care about in any further sense.
The problem with this is that it comes after we’ve just spent two hours in the mind of a man who lives under the shadow of his wife’s violation and murder — who in fact wears the message "John G. raped and murdered my wife" blazoned in mirror-writing across his chest. Along the way, we catch repeated flashbacks of a woman in a plastic bag lying on a bathroom floor, piece together a wrenching subplot about the accidental death of the wife of a supporting character (Stephen Tobolowsky) who has the same strange condition as Leonard, and so on.
To have all of this suffering and tragedy finally come together and be only very clever, rather than satisfying or cathartic, is like spending an afternoon working on a jigsaw puzzle of one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s sadomasochistic photographs, or playing some sort of clever word game based on the writings of the Marquis de Sade. After the user has completed the puzzle, was it worth the time he spent immersed in that world? In a story that involves rape and murder and tragedy, that subjects us to images of dehumanizing evil and extraordinary human difficulty, there ought to be some sort of emotional connection, something to care about. We shouldn’t have to endure all that darkness in the name of a mere puzzle.
Not that a thriller isn’t expected to toy with the emotions as well as tease the mind. But in the end both mind and heart want some sort of satisfaction. Rewarding thrillers, like The Sixth Sense and Frequency, are emotionally satisfying as well as intellectually engaging; they may rip the carpet out from under us in one sense, but in another sense they lift us up at the same time.
Other thrillers, like The Usual Suspects and Unbreakable, are different. In the midst of all their cleverness they are lacking a human center, an elusive quality sometimes described as "heart."
Memento is one of the heartless ones. To be fair, perhaps it aspires to more than mere puzzle-movie status. Perhaps it’s meant as a reflection on the nature of memory, belief, and the human experience. Perhaps it’s a postmodern deconstruction of the conventions of the thriller genre, or, alternatively, a genre thriller deconstruction of the conventions of postmodernism.
Whatever. Intriguing and accomplished as it was, Memento left me unpersuaded that this trip was really necessary.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.