It is no surprise then, that the content and style of Memento is so different to any other mainstream movie you might see this year. The film follows Leonard Shelby (portrayed by Guy Pearce), a man whose wife died after being raped when two men broke into his home, violating her and leaving him with an injury that causes anterograde amnesia. However, only one of the assailants involved is caught and arrested, causing Leonard to become a vigilante and avenge his wife, using notes and tattoos to help him track down the villain who killed her.
This is where Nolan shows his ability to play with film in order to change the audience's perception; because the main protagonist can only remember things that happened before the incident and about three or four minutes before the current time, the film is divided into many short scenes. These scenes are played in reverse order, so that the film begins with the ultimate act of revenge, and from then on back tracks through time to display every shocking detail about Leonard's condition and story. As if this wasn't complicated enough, not everything is as it seems, and small hints of this start to trickle through fractured memories from the very beginning.
The film opens with a close-up shot of a flapping Polaroid photograph in somebody's hand of a body lying face down on a bloody floor, immediately grabbing the attention of the viewer and leaving us to watch in bewilderment as the image within the white frame slowly fades to blank. This intrigue is further developed when the photograph is pushed back into a camera which then flashes and we realize that this scene is being played to us in reverse. Then we finally see the face of the main character, appearing scarred and distressed behind the heavy camera before a quick cut to him returning the camera to his pocket.
What follows is another close-up, this time a shot taken with the camera laying on its side (something rarely done in cinematography) of blood running across the floor, retreating back into the body that lies there; which cuts again to the shell of a bullet rolling slowly across the ground and yet speeding up, and then a quick transition to a pair of glasses lying upside-down and flecked with blood. Again we see Leonard, this time holding his arm above the ground, where a gun jumps into his hand from the ground below and he begins to point it in front of him.
And then everything comes to life in a short burst, with the glasses bouncing and flying onto the face of the body, the shell of ammunition soaring back into the gun, spatters of blood diving from the walls into the back of the corpse's head, and a sudden flash of light from the weapon before showing the open mouthed scream of the man who appears to have just sprung to life. The scene ends abruptly, fading to black, with us throughout the entire short sequence hearing only ambient noise, a gunshot and the reversed yell for help from the man about to die.
This is the only reversed scene in the film, although the scenes themselves run in reversed order with distinguishable grayscale scenes interweaved between them that explain Leonard's story further, which eventually fade into colour and continue the main narrative. The fades and transitions are so subtle that you probably wouldn't notice them unless you looked for them.
The casting for the movie is brilliant, with every character having their own unique traits and purposes. There are only three principal characters that we see on screen for long periods of time, and this helps in building convincingly realistic characters, as the director has not had to juggle with many actors and actresses. It may take us a while to relate to the main character, as we first see him commit murder before we even hear him speak, but it's not long before we feel that we can be on his side. Leonard plays a complicated role, which is further complicated by both his condition and his actions that we don't always know about, but Guy Pearce fits the role majestically, and pulls off the frequent loss of memory with great finesse.
Originally, Brad Pitt was considered for this role, but personally I'm glad he turned it down, as Pitt isn't known for roles like the disabled Leonard, and is instead renowned for anarchistic or secret agent-type parts, and although I would only want to praise his acting ability after seeing him in David Fincher's Fight Club, it may have been harder to take his character as seriously as Guy Pearce is able to bring the character to life. Joe Pantoliano stands out in his performance as Teddy, a police officer and seemingly the main character's friend, though Leonard has to be reminded of who he is every time they meet, as the director's first choice for this role he succeeds in showing his capabilities of feeling both pity and having to lie on screen at the same time, a great challenge for any actor.
The costumes reflect the gritty and dark atmosphere of the movie, as everyone in the film is of average wealth, there are no extravagant items of clothing that would distract from the essential points of the film, without all the character's looking the same. Some costumes help for suspicion about the characters to accumulate, as is the purpose of Leonard's expensive suit, of which we find out how he obtained very late into the film.
The setting of the film could be any American city, which helps to emphasize that it is the drama and characters that are important and not the locations. There is a typical cheap motel, an abandoned industrial park and a peaceful looking residential estate. These carefully selected locations and the places between them serve for the majority of the film's scenes, and as our familiarity with these places increases, we further realize how Leonard can't feel the same recognition.
The soundtrack consists entirely of an original score composed by David Julyan, and sounds quite emotive even without the film alongside it. As with many independent films such as Donnie Darko, the soundtrack is used sparingly and is normally inserted at times of great distress or peril. It can't be denied that the background score suits the imagery of the film throughout and sympathizes with both upsetting and upbeat scenes at both ends of the movie.
As indicated in the description of the opening scene, the editing in this film is particularly clever, showing the audience everything in the scene that they need to see, and yet restricting them until the end what they really should have known throughout. Quick cuts are often used, as well as choppy editing for mundane sequences such as Leonard taking a shower, which as well as protecting the actor's modesty speeds the sequence along tremendously well. The camera work for this same scene is also done very effectively. As we see through the eyes of the main character looking through the frosted glass of the shower, we see a dark shape approaching slowly as opposed to seeing an external view of the shower and the clear image of a man sneaking up, as would be done in most movies.
Watching this film for the first time is like seeing a Rubik's cube assemble itself in front of your eyes, and it's not likely that every piece will fall into place until a second viewing at the least. This may not appeal to many casual film-viewers, as well as those who may not be intelligent enough to comprehend the plot, and people without the patience to think while watching a film. This may also be the place to be critical about this movie. Although it remains gripping and enthralling throughout, by the end you may be tired and perhaps even confused by all the information fit into just less than two hours.
The pacing can also be a problem for people eager to find out what is really going on, with not much going on about three quarters of the way into the film except for scenes that set up what came before them. As the end of the story happens at the beginning of the movie, the end of the movie could be seen as anti-climatic, as it is only really the audience that really finds out what is going on, although it is likely that you'll be in so much of a shock at the twist revealed at the end and thinking about what has already happened that what happens next seems unimportant in comparison anyway. The movie is full of loving nods to other independent movies and isn't without its own dark, sometimes ironic sense of humour, which is injected at regular intervals and can help to push the film along.
The film made an astonishingly large profit in both cinema and DVD sales, and continues to baffle even the sharpest critics today. It won no less than 40 different awards and was nominated for more than 30 on top of those, and currently has a place at #29 on the Internet Movie Database's top 250 films of all time, with over 180,000 voters from around the world. If you do get around to seeing this movie, it will be one that you want to see again, perhaps straight afterwards to fill in the clever blanks and notice the subtle allusions that the filmmakers have included to puzzle us the first time round. Whatever you make of it, and whether or not you understand it all at once, you'll probably find it hard to stop watching, and it's not a movie that you will soon forget.