Memento (2001): Christopher Nolan’s Witty Noir Thriller, Starring Guy Pearce

Christopher Nolan’s visionary thriller, “Memento” proves that film noir, one of the most favorite genres, still offers enormous possibilities for creative filmmakers. Gimmicky and manipulative in the most positive sense of these terms, this scary, haunting tale places the audience within the brain of a man named Leonard Shelby (splendidly played by Guy Pearce), who has lost his short-term memory–and identity. 

Nolan deepens some of the themes he carefully and craftily explored in his striking, low-budget, black-and-white debut, “Following” (see review).  Like most good movies, Memento represents the subjective, authentic realization of its director’s vision, and operates on multiple levels. On the surface, it’s a disturbing tale of revenge by an obsessive man whose wife was raped and killed. Unable to retain any new information for longer than a few minutes, he tracks his inquest through a series of Polaroid photos with scribbled captions, using them as semi-facts and clues tattooed on his body.
A man caught up in his own private time warp, Leonard lives in a kind of perpetual present tense, his mind rewinding over and over, in an endless loop, leaping from now to then and back again, a movement reflected in the audacious visual design of the movie itself. Is Leonard an obsessively sociopath addict, subconsciously and unconsciously hooked on revenge?
Defying linear progression, the script is structured backwards and sideways, so that Leonard’s past and future appear to be interconnected from both ends and directly affecting his present. Deconstructing with agility time and space, cinema’s two unique dimensions, with dexterity, Memento turns the very act of watching a movie into a self-reflexive puzzle, forcing the viewers to deconstruct and then reassemble not only Leonard’s own mystery but also the very mystery of their own memory.
Unlike most contemporary noirs, the script is not explicitly based on any recognizable antecedents, featuring characters, situations and conflicts that are relatively new and modern. That’s what elevates Memento above the routine noir and also make it relevant for a new generation of young viewers. (My undergrad students admire the picture and can recite scenes and dialogue from it)) 
Its gleefully brilliant script combines novelistic detail with a shrewd sense of what will play onscreen, of what’s uniquely cinematic. The writing is startlingly original, without self-righteousness and moral allegations, striking the right balance between theatrical and cinematic sensibility. Just when the dialogue becomes too static, and the ambience too claustrophobic, Nolan adds movement and color, alternating indoor with outdoor scenes in equal measures.
Guy Pearce gives a distinguished performance as Leonard, a frantic, disheveled man, committed to a mission of vengeance, a hunt for the psycho who raped and murdered his wife
I admire many moments in the film, but the one that keeps haunting me is the scene in which Leonard finds himself in the middle of a chase, except he can’t remember whether he’s the pursuer or the pursued. In this and other haunting moments, Memento assumes the urgency and clarity of a nightmare.
The script is thoughtfully constructed, with neatly placed shards of humor and irony. As set forth by Nolan’s intricate scenario, fate keeps undercutting Leonard like a trip wire, yet everything that happens bears a clear, piercing logic. Showing movie knowingness as well as social awareness, the tale contains the requisite confrontations, fights, and shootouts. But it’s much more than that. Intricately structured puzzle, which sustains its mystery until the resolution of the final shots, the thrilling “Memento” demands sustained attention from the viewers.
You can only commend Nolan for being inspired by good role models: the inventive noir stylists: John Boorman’s “Point Blank,” John Frankenheimer’s “Seconds,” Nicolas Roeg’s “Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession,” all wonderfully inventive film, noirs that in many ways are experimental, pushing the narrative boundaries of the popular genre. 
Though movie-savvy, Nolan is not a typical film school graduate. The script betrays his origins in English literature: It’s smart but also existential and profound. As co-writers, the Nolan brothers show themselves to be masters of raunchy, streetwise dialogue. (See below)
Perhaps the greatest compliment a critic can pay “Memento” is that second viewing is not only encouraged, but also extremely rewarding. You can’t say that about many pictures, mainstream or indies.

Memorable Lines:

“Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts”–Leonard Shelby


Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano

Box-Office (adjusted for inflation): $37 million