Long before Christopher Nolan was a mere bat-glimpse in the Dark Knight’s eye. Years before he went charging forward towards Director superstardom, he made a film that was completely backwards. Literally. As the new millennium dawned, Christopher Nolan adapted his brother’s short story Memento Mori. Shortening the title to simply Memento, the basic plot seems fairly routine. Wife is murdered, husband tries to find who did it. This simplified outline belies the fact that it was a murder mystery like no other.
The film opens with Leonard, played by Guy Pearce, killing the man he believes perpetrated his wife’s murder. Showing this at the beginning is a strong statement of intent for any murder mystery film, but it’s the only way Memento could have opened. You see the whole film is presented in reverse, or at least half of it is. Confused yet? Don’t be.
If losing his wife wasn’t bad enough, Leonard has other issues. In an attempt to protect his wife during the initial attack, he suffered a head injury. Coming round afterwards he finds that not only has he killed one of the two attackers, but has also developed anterograde amnesia. This psychological disorder impairs his ability to create new memories. He remembers everything before the attack, but struggles to recall new information. More than a small inconvenience when you need to piece together a murder! Crucially the police don’t believe there was a second attacker leaving Leonard to undertake his own personal man hunt. Undeterred by their lack of support and inability to remember new things, Leonard has a novel way of tracking his investigation. Before he forgets any new information he has learned, not only does he take Polaroid photographs and make notes but, for the really important clues, he gets them tattooed them on his body. A permanent reminder of his very personal mission. This way, every day, he can wake up and revisit where he is in his enquiry.
Memento has two threads running throughout. Black and white flashback sequences tell Leonard’s story as an Insurance Investigator prior to his injury and these run chronologically giving context to the story. The other modern day scenes are in colour and tell Leonard’s narrative as he tries to piece together clues to find the killer he believes is still out there. After the threads converge at the start of the movie, they split into their respective timelines to give us an insight into his life, his struggles and his motives. This is more than director trickery. We get to see the world the way Leonard does, in disjointed, confusing imagery.
Leonard isn’t alone in his search. He is aided, if that’s the right word, by Joe Pantoliano’s Teddy and Carrie-Anne Moss’ Natalie. The question becomes whether Leonard can trust them or the information they give him. Are they manipulating him or genuinely trying to help? Will he remember in time to take stock? Little by little, Leonard begins to piece together the mystery away from its shocking beginning to an even more amazing end.
Memento was a huge critical success upon its release, if not a massive box office triumph. Many large studios were put off by its unusual structure and passed on the opportunity to distribute it. Eventually a small, independent company called Newmarket took the brave step and released it. Despite winning numerous awards, the film didn’t reach the huge audience it deserved until it was released on video and DVD. It has subsequently been released a number of times, also now on blu-ray, with an ever growing list of special features. In some regions the disc even has a hidden option to watch the entire film in chronological order but, trust me, backwards is the only way to go.