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Cinophile: Memento

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[column size=one_half position=first ] Christopher Nolan is again enjoying a moment of glory at the box office, thanks to his gift for taking the obvious and flipping it in its ear. Many point to his grittier tone for the Batman movies, which took comic book material and made it a lot more profound than any other spandex cinema faire.

The Prestige was practically a study of the relationship between the mundane and how it can be bent to the spectacular. And who can forget Inception, the mind-bending science fiction movie where eventually nothing was as it seems. Even Nolan’s first film, Following, broke the mold with a maddening mixture of its past, present and future, yet still with that energy and pop sensibility. Maybe I’m going about this all wrong. Maybe Nolan’s gift is taking the weird and making it obvious.

But even by such high standards, his sophomore film Memento has taken its own place in history. It tells the story of a man out to avenge the murder of his wife. But the movie does this backwards. It starts at the end and leapfrogs back to previous scenes, slowly building the picture, while black and white scenes are in-between, running in normal order. Guy Pearce is Leonard, the avenging widower with a small problem: an accident has left him unable to create short-term memories. He cannot remember what he did a few minutes earlier – a handicap if you are trying to solve a murder. So Leonard relies on a creative note keeping system to keep him on the right track.

Meanwhile he has a strange ally in Joe Pantoliano’s Teddy, despite killing him at the end (start) of the film. Carrie-Anne Moss’ Natalie is another dark horse in a story that seems to give more questions than answers, then it all suddenly comes together as the forward and backward storylines merge.

Nothing is what it seems and the complete picture has settled in along the likes of The Usual Suspects in the brilliance of the twist. Amazingly it is actually a pretty straight-forward story and there are a few plot holes. For example, Leonard’s window to forget things tend to vary by a few minutes. But Nolan knows how to balance believability and pacing. The whole thing draws together so beautifully that even on re-watches Memento is mesmerizing.
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Memento was a big collaboration between Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan. The latter came up with the plot and wrote a short-story version as he and Christopher developed the movie. The story, Memento Mori, was not published. Jonathan has since worked on the Batman movies and Interstellar with his brother.
There were some interesting casting choices for Memento before Guy Pearce and Carrie Anne Moss took the lead roles. Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Aaron Eckhart, Thomas Jane and Famke Janssen were all apparently considered for the respective parts. Denis Leary turned down playing the role of Teddy, which went to Moss’ Matrix co-star Joe Pantoliano.
Memento catapulted Nolan’s star. It was both a huge financial and critical success, even landing two Academy nominations for screenplay and editing.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: November 10, 2014


  1. Nolan’s best work without a freaking doubt….. Until I rewatch Prestige, and then that is his best work without a doubt….. and then I rewatch Memento again and….


    • James Francis

      November 11, 2014 at 12:45

      Get a hold of his first film. It’s quite interesting.


  2. Skyblue

    November 10, 2014 at 20:37

    I remember watching this years before I knew who Christopher Nolan was and mind = blown. This sentence “Maybe Nolan’s gift is taking the weird and making it obvious.” perfectly sums up his ability to convey complicated concepts in a way that does not alienate audiences. I can’t wait to go watch Interstellar as soon as I get a chance to.


    • James Francis

      November 11, 2014 at 12:46

      Yeah, it’s weird that Nolan only really became a name after Batman, even though his previous films have been quite remarkable and successful.


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