Memento was the first real new noir film to be released…since Blade Runner really. When it was released, it started a trend of films playing around with their narrative structure to the point where it almost became a gimmick. Now, as we come upon the tenth anniversary of the film’s release, Memento itself seems almost gimmicky. The last reference I can recall of the film is a character on a TV show who insisted the film “is not as good the second time through.” Were we all just victims of a mass hysteria proclaiming it to be proclaiming the film the new chariot to the promised land?
People forget-it was never about the gimmick. The film structure was done so we could more easily relate to the main character. Taken on that term, the film is the masterpiece that it was proclaimed to be.
Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is a man who is suffering from anterograde amnesia. His last new memory is of his wife being murdered by drug dealers. He makes it his mission to find the man who murdered his wife. Along the way, he is used by two people named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and Natalie (Carrie Anne Moss: this would be a Matrix reunion but their characters never meet). They use his brain damage to their own ends. All the while, Leonard is transformed from a mild mannered insurance investigator into something far more sinister.
First off, many would ask the following question: How could Leonard remember that he has a condition? Good question. I think that is actually one of the points of the film. In describing the condition, Leonard uses the incorrect terms and seems to be unable to determine whether the condition is physical or psychological. Small continuity errors actually help reinforce this notion of just how fickle memory is (one license plate number changes a few times during the course of the film). Plus, it is the reality that we are presented with. The film does take time to explain it, and I think that it does that job really well.
But is it a noir? Yes. There are several tributes to the film noirs of the past. Shelby’s job certainly recalls Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. The fact that half the film is shot in stark black and white is also not beside the point. Natalie is the classic femme fatale (done in a completely new way). As a straightforward noir, this would have been competent.
It is the narrative structure that sets the film apart. Again, it is not gimmicky. That would mean that the film told its story in reverse for the sake of telling the story in reverse. What we need to remember is that Leonard has amnesia. That means that he can only remember the present but has no past beyond a certain point. He walks through the world confused and frustrated, finding himself in situations that he has no idea how he got into or how he can get out of. One dark humored scene has Leonard running from a man, only to run toward him and almost got shot because Leonard thought he was the one doing the chasing rather than the one being chased.
The structure helps us enter Shelby’s world. We are just as confused as he is in trying to solve the crime. The film is edited in such a way that we may not remember what happens next every time we watch it. We are caught in the labyrinth of Shelby’s mind every single time, always picking up new clues, always trying to decipher it.
For example, I am not convinced that the “twist ending” is really a twist at all. I am not even convinced that it is true. We only have one unreliable man’s testimony to believe. Who’s to say what is real and what is fake? To Shelby, the world he has created around him is frighteningly real. To Teddy, the world he has created for Shelby is just as real. And that is what comes to play in that finale. Those two world views colliding and competing. In the end, Shelby’s condition has rendered him blind to reality. But is that a condition Shelby alone possesses?