It has been a remarkable twenty years for movies, but Memento, directed by Christopher Nolan and debuting in the first year of this decade, is far and away the best film of this period. In a span that includes new heights in animation, fantasy films that take us to never before seen lands, and character-driven stories that strike an emotional chord, this philosophical noir mind-bender trumps them all.
Chrisopher Nolan’s Tour de Force
First of all, the structure of the film is, if possible, underrated. Many speak of Memento and mention how the action moves out of sequence or backwards, but that is selling it short. A film like Betrayal is more accurately described as moving backwards. Each scene takes place before the last one, as we trace the relationships of the friends and lovers back to the source of their betrayal and strife. Memento, however, has a more complex structure. While the main action, portrayed in color, moving backwards, a second story, told in black and white, moves forward, until the two threads converge as a single, terrible Polaroid is shaken into clarity.
So, as the viewer’s mind rushes to keep up with the story, we are disoriented as Leonard himself, who cannot remember where he is or where he is going, and is frustrated along the way. We try to piece together who his allies are, and, with stellar performances by Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss, we are as in the dark as Leonard. Thus, the acting and plot keep us engaged and keep our minds working throughout the entire length of the film, which is a rare thing in cinema-going these days, but the real strength of Memento is in its thematic underpinnings.
Memento speaks to all of us
While Lord of the Rings is a fantastic romp and Crash is a tightly woven tale, no other film comes close to Memento’s insight into our inner lives. Leonard Shelby is an everyman who learns the truth about human nature the hard way. An ordinary insurance investigator, when Leonard loses his ability to make new memories, he finds himself adrift in a world he does not understand, being used by everyone he meets, and facing an uncertain future alone, as we all are.
Teddy uses Leonard to score drug money. Natalie uses him for amusement and revenge. Leonard himself sets a trigger to use his own body as a weapon of vengeance when Teddy betrays him. Leonard is taken advantage of by those he trusts, as we all are. And he exists in a world he does not understand, stripped of the illusions of memory, which he tells us is not reliable, Leonard is both a man and a child, an agent of action and a pawn of others.
We’re all like Guy Pearce
Volumes can be written analyzing the plot of Memento and exploring the thematic connections between Leonard and classical mythology, but the fact of the matter is, no movie of the last ten years challenges the mind, the soul and the heart, and demands repeat viewing more than Memento, which is why this is truly the film of the recent decades.