It’s thrilling to be tested in this way. The logical evolution of the detective story. Not: can you solve the mystery, but: can you even stand to keep up?
At times, Memento really starts to make you feel like Lenny. You, not quite able to follow because the plot is moving backwards too fast; him, not able to remember anything because of his condition… How did I get here? Just about keeping up in the moment, as the plot rattles past, but as you nod along with the dialogue to show you understand, wondering: Where exactly am I now?
As the scenes, and the links between them, become less clearly marked, you’re asking yourself a lot of questions: ‘Wait, how did we get here? What am I looking for? How will this scene end?’ By opening with the plot’s conclusion, but obscuring what it means, the film is able to pull you straight into its plot with the first few scenes. Having already won you over, with the clarity of its original scenes and central mystery, Memento begins to blur the lines a little.
Eventually, it all gets too much, about three-quarters of the way in. You’re trying to juggle too much. It might be sloppy film-making. It might just be that the experiment, of saying ‘c’mon keep up’ and testing the audience, gets pushed a little too far. The problem with shuffling a plot around, so that each scene comes chronologically directly before the last one, is that it’s easy to be gratuitous. Merely writing something in order and then sliding the pieces around doesn’t work. (Trust me.) It has to be designed that way. Of course, Christopher Nolan is a master craftsman, and a great loss to the world of puzzle games.
Memento starts out exceedingly tight, as it lays out its premise on the table. This man can’t remember further back than five minutes ago, and every five-minute scene will take us to the beginning of the last. This isn’t easy to grasp, and so the first hour of scenes are clearly marked at their start and end by contrasting locations, or a key line, anchors as carefully chosen as Inception’s totems. One scene will start in a busy diner and end in the same darkened woman’s bedroom the last scene started in, with Lenny’s anonymous motel room acting as a palette-cleanser.
Discussing Memento‘s genius, people tend to talk about the mind-expanding reversed plot. It’s a story of vengeance that opens with the successful killing, and works backwards. But the true brilliance in Memento, what brings everything together, is the one story that runs forward: there are black-and-white scenes interspersed between these backwards scenes. This is Guy Pearce’s Lenny in his motel room – the neutral space of the film – narrating the story of Sammy Jankis, whose amnesiac plight reflects his own.
Memento is the kind of perfectly-constructed puzzle that Nolan took to the blockbuster with Inception. But far better: it’s smaller and more personal, and the form is more fitting to the content. This is, after all, the story of a single character with a very particular problem, and about getting the audience inside of his head (as opposed to Inception, which was about getting all of its characters into as many heads as possible). Because Lenny can’t remember more than five minutes back. He’s got a condition… Wait. Have I already told you about it?
Memento is here at least partially as a represent of the kind of muscular, intelligent thrillers in my formative film-watching years. The Usual Suspects; Se7en… born out of first viewing a film on this list, #2. Last week’s film, Wristcutters, represents the best of the other side of the family, oversoon by the powerful matriarch of our #1.
There’s a family tree in this list, one that will only become clear once it’s all done. Ha, fitting, right?