Memento: Watchlist #2 (What I love and Hate About Christopher Nolan)

Memento, #2 on my watchlist is a 2000 thriller movie directed by Christopher Nolan, one of my favorite directors, starring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, and Stephen Toblowski.  It tells the story of a man, afflicted with short term memory loss, hell-bent on discovering and ending the man who gave him his condition, and murdered his wife.  Although I enjoyed Memento immensely, it is rated R, and justifiably so for violence, language, and drug use.  Luckily, for younger cinephiles, Nolan did the Dark Knight trilogy, which is still his best work anyway.  Uplifting, thought provoking, and fraught with excellent acting, those three movies are some of the best ever put to disk, let alone, some of the finest superhero films of all time.

Technically, Memento is a masterpiece.  The first scene is shot in delightful reverse motion.  It opens with a shot of a hand holding a photograph, and the viewer is confused as the hand waves the picture in the air, and it only fades away.  Leonard (Pearce) has shot someone, we see the gun jump into his hand — not unlike the sort of shot that replicates use of the force in an amateur Star Wars production — and the bullet and muzzle flash are sucked back into the barrel.  This is an important scene, because of what it establishes.  It explains that the film will in fact be shown in reverse, and that what is being watched now, is the climax, not the story’s true beginning.

Like Leonard, we are disoriented at the beginning of each scene, which always begins with Leonard not knowing what he is doing.  The viewer scrambles for orientation, to find some semblance of understanding, as they, like Leonard are thrust into a new situation, with no explanation whatsoever.  At one point, Leonard’s memory refreshes mid-conflict as he is running through the streets of Los Angeles.  “What am I doing?” he says.

“Chasing him? he says running towards a rather dangerous looking man.

The man shoots a gun at him, and he realizes “He’s chasing me”

Memento is really interesting because it doesn’t build characters, it deconstructs them.  Natalie, who is shown as a benefactor in the film’s beginning, is revealed to be a manipulator, getting back at Leonard for his murder of her boyfriend, which he doesn’t even remember.  At one point, a scene directly following a cordial encounter between the two, finds her verbally abusing him, and his wife, knowing full well, he will soon forget it.  Joe Pantoliano, who we know to be John G., the killer of Leonard’s wife, is believably guilty at first, but as the film goes on, he is less and less murderer like.  At the end of the film, we realize that he is in fact, just another guy named John G.  Leonard has already killed his target, and its possible that his wife has survived.  Leonard in his anger, plants evidence, writing “He is the one, kill him” on the man’s picture, sealing the man’s fate, for a later date.

The ending of the movie throws about three different possibilities at the viewer at once, juxtaposing the remembrances of Leonard, and the different things he is told by John and Natalie.  The result is quite overwhelming, and the viewer is pretty unsure what to believe.  This calls into question the notion of absolute truth, and suggests that reality is what you make it.  False, though this idea may be, Nolan’s presentation of it is beyond unsettling.

Memento is a film so well executed, that it is enjoyable to watch, on merit of its structure alone.  Its extremely engaging, every time a scene begins, to look for clues, or possible events, that will lead Leonard by the scene’s end, to the spot the last one began.  With all that said, the plot’s conclusion left me crestfallen; the movie’s protagonist, that I had spent the last 110 minutes rooting for, turns out to be the villain; a man so bent on revenge, that he is willing to bend reality to deliver it again, and again.  This is betrayal of the worst kind.

While I admire Christopher Nolan a lot, I’m really not a fan of his writing style.  His film’s tend to harbor a considerably bleak worldview, that only takes away from his excellent cinematography, and otherwise impeccable storytelling.  “Interstellar” though beautiful, suspenseful, and fascinating to the end, saw the main character completely miss the lives of his children, having sacrificed years of his life in space.  This is positively maddening, to know what a director is capable of and to be deprived of it.  Indeed, the property I love Nolan for, his work with the Batman franchise, works well, I think, because he was restrained by an already established mythos.

Whatever the reason, “The Dark Knight Rises”, is one of the most inspiring movies I’ve ever seen, and depending how I feel on any given day, it might be my favorite movie.  Sometimes I watch the scene where Batman fights Bane for the last time, by itself; its such well shot action.  Nolan knows how to use his skills in the director’s chair to suffuse a movie, with tension, grit, and even hope; he just chooses not to sometimes.

I say all of this because of the trailer for Nolan’s next production, “Dunkirk”.  The Trailer was excellent.  Actually, possibly the best trailer I’ve ever seen.  I wish I could find it online, and place a link here, but It seems to have only been shown during the previews before “Rogue One”.  Suffice it to say, the trailer could have stood alone as a seven minute short film.  I can’t say I remember the last time, I say a trailer that was a narrative in itself.

The movie is about an event, that went down in British history, as decidedly heroic.  I’m holding out hope that this will be enough to elicit something good out of Nolan.  Something with the camera working chops of Memento, that Nolan is known for, but with the heart, soul, and redemption of his Batman films.




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