BP’s Top 100 Movie Challenge #58: Memento, by Sarah Brinks
I decided to undertake a movie challenge in 2017. This seemed like a good way to see some classic movies that I have unfortunately never seen. The Battleship Pretension Top 100 list provided such a challenge.
I was in (cough, cough) high school when Memento came out and I remember my fellow students gushing about how different and visionary it was. I watched it and felt the same way. It was so different from other films that I had seen before both in structure and subject matter. Making a movie about memory is about as tangible as making a movie about dreams (which Nolan tackled in 2010’s Inception). Memento plays on the idea that memory is unreliable so even without a brain injury we can’t always rely on our memories. It also highlights the feeling we have all experienced of trying to hold on to a memory or trying desperately to remember something very important and failing. Few things in this world are more frustrating.
The structure of Memento is certainly the most interesting thing about it. I have to give Nolan credit for essentially telling a story backwards and keeping it as clear as it is. Each new scene raises a number of questions which are usually answered when you see the next scene; which is what happened prior to the scene you just saw. It can get a little confusing when you try to put it into order, but it really works as a narrative structure. Nolan gives you a few seconds of the scene prior to orient you in where we are in the story but he relies on the audience paying attention and piecing things together.
The cast is led by Guy Pearce, who gives a good performance as Leonard. Pearce plays the smarminess of an insurance investor but the vulnerability of someone with a mental condition. You also see flashes in his performance of the killer we find out that he is at the end. I like that they hint that he is capable of murder well before we learn that he is a murder. One of the stars of the film is Joe Pantoliano as Teddy. You are suspicious of him from the beginning, never knowing who he really is and why he is hanging out with Leonard. He brings such a strong energy to the screen. Whether he is a good guy or a bad guy he is a welcome presence every time he shows up on screen. Another stand out is Stephen Tobolowsky as Sammy Jankis. He is another character that you are unsure of most of the film, is he faking or is he really brain damaged? Tobolowsky make Sammy feel vulnerable and sad but also a little bit suspicious. A less talented actor could have made Sammy one dimensional but Tobolowsky gives this small part depth and magnitude.
I hadn’t watched Memento in many years so it was good to see it again, especially having seen many other Christopher Nolan films since my last viewing. I feel like my personal opinion of Nolan as a director differs on a film by film basis. I usually like his films but I am underwhelmed by him sometimes. He tackles big topics in his films but I think sometimes he gets in his own way. I also tend to like the films most people like less; for example, I prefer Batman Begins to The Dark Night and I really enjoy Interstellar. However, with Memento I think he shows restraint and keeps the story as the focus rather than his own cleverness.
I’ve decided to rate each film using an arbitrary scale based on the board game Battleship (lowest: Destroyer, Submarine, Cruiser, Battleship, highest: Carrier)
Memento ranking: Battleship