Against The Hype

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Nolan’s Best Shot: Memento

March 16, 2011 By: Colin Low Category: Capsuled Thoughts

These days, director Christopher Nolan is justifiably esteemed for risking his blockbusters on such nominally cerebral material as InceptionThe Dark Knight, and The Prestige. But for me, Nolan’s breakout success Memento—today celebrating the tenth anniversary of its release—is still the movie that best corrals his recurring strengths and weaknesses into one taut package. I’d go further to advise fans and skeptics alike to catch the chronological-order cut of the movie (available on the Limited Edition DVD), which shores up how duly the movie’s meticulous construction serves its high-concept premise, its reliance on copious exposition and its motivating dead lovers—all tropes that have since dogged Nolan’s work, often for the worse.

But more than that, the chronological-order cut also offers a crucial look at how editing can utterly change our conception of an actor’s craft, and a writer-director’s rounded compassion. The above shot, my pick for Nathaniel Roger’s Hit Me with Your Best Shot series, offers the gist of my elations and problems with Memento. I’ve heard somewhere that, coming off the back of The Matrix‘s success (my review), Carrie-Anne Moss’ signing on to Memento was what led to the project being green-lit. Funny that we haven’t seen much of her since, while the two movies that remain her most prominent cultural legacies are still going strong a decade later. And they both reduce her to token plot points! That’s irony for you.

Of course, Memento knows from irony; it peddles unabashedly in it. Layered dream-heists, impossibly diabolical terrorist plots, obsessive magicians’ gambits: none of these quite hold a candle to the simplicity and continual thrills of Memento‘s backwards chronology, as motivated by the short-term memory loss of its protagonist Leonard Shelby. Yet this doesn’t mean we’re being dropped into scenes without preconceptions, despite some critics’ claims that this continual backwards structure is meant to put us into Leonard’s shoes. It’s not like we have anterograde amnesia ourselves! Given the way the narrative is structured, we know each new scene is going to show us how Leonard’s been duped yet again. The fun of Memento is in seeing how it’s done, and its enjoyably ironic scene-by-scene revelations play out all the way to the celebrated twist ending. As it turns out, that irony holds up just as brutally when we’re going forwards instead of backwards, only we now get to catch Leonard in the very moment of misreading the scenario in which he finds himself.

Warning: Spoilers follow!
With one exception. Carrie-Anne Moss’ performance as Natalie visibly improves from theatrical to chronological-order cut. The problem with Memento‘s structure of continual revelations is that they imply that we’re verging onto the truth of what we’re seeing. But what this does for Natalie is “reveal” her to be a femme fatale who is manipulating Leonard for her own purposes, especially since this aligns with Memento‘s use of detective noir conventions. However, watching Memento in chronological order, we learn that Natalie is really the character whose motivations happen to shift most across the events of the story. Leonard just keeps trying to find his wife’s killer, and Teddy keeps trying to get him to leave town. By contrast, Natalie has to:

  1. Wonder what happened to her boyfriend, and why some oblivious stranger has his clothes and car
  2. Realize she’s in deep shit, because the money her boyfriend took with him for a drug deal is now missing
  3. Use Leonard as a means of getting rid of her pursuer (Why not? If he shows up with her boyfriend’s stuff, he was probably involved in his disappearance somehow)
  4. Repay Leonard’s help by getting info of the driver who owns John G’s license plate, even though he probably won’t remember that he did

Now why would Natalie do this last point, other than out of kindness? Some viewers have floated the possibility that she’s trying to get Leonard to kill the “Teddy” who set up the deal with her boyfriend. Except: 1) nothing in the film indicates that she has enough information to link Teddy with “John Edward Gammell”, and 2) the license plate number is legitimately Teddy’s. This interpretation is likely influenced by the way that the original Memento tracks Natalie’s motivations backwards, so that we’re increasingly met with a Natalie who is justifiably guarded, even furious, at Leonard’s blithe audacity and his cluelessness at her plight.

The truth is, for all Nolan’s investments in scowling, grim-jawed leading men (both here and in his subsequent movies), Carrie-Anne Moss still provides the best snapshot (heh) of grief over a dead lover in his filmography thus far. As she points out to Leonard, in a line that reads as cryptic so early in the original cut, but that is fully attuned to how far she’s come in view of chronological events: “You know what you and I have in common? We are both survivors.” They have also slept together the night before, and Moss astutely implies that Natalie is doing so partly to replace her lost boyfriend (see the shot up top), while also making Natalie pragmatic enough to pull away because Leonard’s not worth the emotional trouble (“You don’t remember me.”) She walks out the diner a survivor, but only before Nolan’s partiality towards cleverness over empathy lead him to remake her in his image.

5 Comments to “Nolan’s Best Shot: Memento

  1. I think Natalie is definitely the most complex character in the film. I’ve always had a little bit of trouble following her motivations (mostly due to the fact that the events of the film seem to occur over a very short amount of time). I’ve watched the movie in chronilogical order before (on a sidenote, MEMENTO might be my favourite film of all time). This pieces makes me want to do so again and see if I can keep track of what Natalie is up to.

    • Colin Low says:

      Thanks, Tom! I really appreciate the comment, since I wasn’t sure that I’d managed to speak as well in Natalie’s favor as I’d hoped to do. Very glad to hear that you’ll give Carrie-Anne Moss’ performance another look-see!

  2. Nice review.

    I saw this film yonks ago and almost forgot about it. But my brother in law was staying and he had never seen it so we put it on. LOVE IT!!

    I would be totally lost if Nolan had shot both of the opposing timelines in colour thats for sure.

    I love the scene where Natalie manipulates Leonard to her own devises is super clever and makes the viewer feel so sorry for this poor chap. How many times has this happened?

    Great review, my low standard one can be found here –

    Thanks for putting it together


  3. But……. the thing about the chronologically-ordered version is that it proves the story doesn’t work at all! It makes it worse. For example, precisely in these moments with Natalie at her place, how does Leonard be so “aware” of he is (as it were) when he slams to the floor, she comes back as if somebody did it, and then he walks out of her house and goes directly to the very car he stole without having to check to see which car is his – how does he even remember that he even has a car, or how he got to her house, or who she is at all!!!!???? How does he implicitly TRUST her, after forgetting everything that just happened????
    The film is flawed, we know that – but the chronologically-ordered version makes it even worse.

    • B.Reckerdorn says:

      I think that’s a bit harsh and relies on an incredibly simplistic notion of how human memory works. There’s no reason to believe that the events in the narrative created a mental ability in Leonard that is incapable of moments of “muscle memory” — that is, small behaviors that he pursues without rationally considering them. The stolen car could occupy a very small register in his mind, and when he storms out that faint impression makes him walk that way. His mental condition prevents him from knowing whether or not that IS his car, but he also doesn’t have any good reason to DOUBT it’s his car, so he just acts on it. The mind can “feel” pain in areas left by amputated parts — there’s nothing rational or real there, but it happens. The point is that modern science can’t quantify every possible behavior of the mind and memory, and so it’s not really fair to expect that a film like this can or should either. And he tends to trust things until he gets a reason not to — hence notes like “don’t trust this guy” So that works. A lot of the struggles with how things fit with the memory patterns of Leonard really assume memory is a very simple and predictable thing, and that Leonard’s damaged memory capabilities are also very simple and predictable…but that’s just not realistic.


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