By the end of Memento, I wasn’t all that confused. I figured that the plot, while not exactly told in a straightforward manner, wasn’t terribly complex. Then I thought back on the experience and confused myself. I began to think deeper and deeper about character motivations, who was telling the truth, who was lying, why things happened in the way they did, and so on. And at this point, I realized I had been thinking so long that I took longer thinking about the film than I spent watching it. (Hyperbole used for effect.)
I don’t want to spoil any part of the story. It’s told in reverse order, meaning that if I mention what happens right at the beginning, I’ll effectively ruin the ending of the story. I think it’s safe to tell you what the lead character’s main goal is. His name is Leonard (Guy Pearce), and his idea of a life is to search for the man who killed his wife. He suffers from short-term memory loss, thanks to something referred to primarily as “the incident,” and as a result, he has to write down everything important on note — or on his body. He has a lot of tattoos.
The largest tattoo he has reminds him that his wife was raped and then murdered. It’s written in a way so that he can only read it when looking at a mirror. Other tattoos include the list of traits the killer has. Sometimes, he uses pen ink to make his own tattoos. I continue to talk about his body ink because he’s not exactly the most interesting character. He’s not allowed to be. As other characters frequently mention, he doesn’t know who he is. He insists he knows who he was.
There’s a difference, though. See, Leonard is able to remember everything before “the incident.” Everything, apparently. That’s who he was. Who he is ends up being an entirely different story. He devotes his life to finding out who killed his wife, He used to investigate insurance claims. Now he wants blood, even if he won’t be able to remember that he gets it. See, this is a difference. And because he can’t remember more than a couple of minutes in the past, he’s not allowed to develop. At one point, a character makes light of this. It’s funny, yet sad at the same time.
There are two major supporting cast members. The first is Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), who we first meet giving Leonard some information about a person who might be the man he’s looking for. We later learn that she’s not quite as nice a person as we earlier thought, although where her true interests lie is up to you to learn and figure out.
The second character is Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), who dies in the first scene of the film. Oops, the story just got spoiled for you. But you have to figure out whether he deserved to die or not, with pretty much every scene trying to sway you one way or the other, right up until the very last one — which serves as the beginning of our story.
Since each scene can’t be shown back-to-front, we have to continuously cut back to an arbitrary point so that we can begin the scene. Example: A man enters a room and talks to people. Cut to black. A man leaves his car and heads for a room. Cut to black. The film works like this but orders these scenes in reverse chronological order. Instead of cutting to black, it cuts to a black and white shot that tells a story from before the main story begins, eventually serving as a prologue. This is difficult to explain, but just remember that the black and white scene happens before the color story, and that it, unlike the color story, it is told in proper order.
This storytelling technique is used in a way to hide certain factors from you. Told in a straightforward manner, Memento might not be as interesting as it ends up being. It would just be a straightforward thriller. what it ends up being thanks to the non-linear storytelling is an engaging mystery film for the audience, while also functioning as a very solid thriller. It adds another layer onto what was already a pretty good story.
Also, thanks to this way of telling our story, we’re given a lot to think about both after the film ends, while also making us constantly question just exactly what’s going on while we’re watching it. This is a deeper film than I initially gave it credit for, and it’s this way almost solely because of the way it tells us its story. If told in a generic fashion, it would have been a good film. Telling it in reverse-chronological order turns it into a great one.
Guy Pearce has the lead, and in it gives a powerhouse performance. His neurotic, obsessive, paranoid persona drives the film, and it also keeps you interested. Because — thanks to the definition of his “condition” — he’s not allowed to really develop, Pearce has to convince us that he’s a man worth rooting for. Or, at the very least, he has to make us willing to care for long enough to become invested in the film. Once we begin to discover who he really is, maybe he won’t be a character we continue to associate with. But we’ve been dragged into the story by this point, and that no longer matters. It’s because of Pearce that this is possible.
Memento is a great film that you should definitely see. Its plot structure means that you’ll always be thinking about what’s going on, and it also does not allow you time to become bored. All of the actors are good in their roles, and the film becomes something special because of its storytelling technique. This is a must-see movie.