Thursday, 7 February 2013

Memento: Clever on paper, boring in practice.

BEWARE! SPOILERS! (for films Memento and The Machinist)

Since seeing Memento(2000) ranked highly on's Top 250 list, and having been told by some of my friends to watch it because it was "amazing," I felt that it was a film that I really had to watch. I knew nothing of it, other than it had something to do with memory and that people seemed to really like it...

I was underwhelmed, however, and I felt that that was purely down to the fact that the narrative of the film was in reverse; we see it all in reverse order. The first scene that we see is the last chronological scene in the story, and at the end of each scene we see, we see the start of the previous scene we saw. All quite complicated but if you have seen the film then you'll understand what I have tried (miserably) to describe.

Within the first few minutes of the film, I had no idea what was going on. But by the third scene it finally hit me that the plot was being shown from the end to the beginning. Once I had realised this I was initially transfixed with this idea. I thought wow, this'll be interesting; I've never seen a film like this before. And even though I never quite got used to seeing the beginnings of a scene after I had seen the scene, the film honestly had my full attention.

Now, the picture lasts for just under two hours and perhaps that's why this reverse narrative thing didn't work for me. Maybe a film in reverse narrative shouldn't be over an hour and a half because it gives you a headache. After watching about 45minutes of the film, my attention and focus began to subside quickly. I'm not sure if it was the plot itself that bored me, but I am thinking more that the reversed nature of the narrative was what made me lose interest so quickly. By showing the plot in reverse, the film lost all suspense and intrigue for me. It should have felt like a detective trying to pin the clues together of a case, and the entire way through each new find increases your suspense at what the outcome will be. But this wasn't that at all.

The whole thing seemed very stop and start, it didn't flow at all. The fact that the protagonist Leonard (Guy Pearce) has short-term memory loss and will forget things within a few seconds unless he writes them down actually becomes more of a nuisance rather than a quirky/edgy twist to the tale. His memory began to annoy me because it halted the narrative too much. Pearce acted brilliantly though; I've liked him as an actor in both LA Confidential (1997) and Mildred Pierce (2011) and he performs just as good here in Memento. But not even he can make it work.

Christopher Nolan is a good director and he clearly felt that he was onto something new and fresh here, and he's right - what better way to make a film about a man with short-term memory loss than show the plot reverse so that we have no memory. We are as much in the dark as our protagonist - almost. But for me it didn't work at all. The plot never progressed. There are other ways to show how a story ended - through flashback is usually the most common way of doing so. But a reverse narrative is a somewhat boring alternative.

The only time that I felt it really worked was in the scene where Leonard is in Natalie's (Carrie-Anne Moss) house, and she fails to convince him to kill a man called Dodd. He refuses outright, and they both argue about his condition and his dead wife. Natalie calls him names and insults his wife, meanwhile Leonard is scrambling round the room for a pen so that he can write on his polaroid photograph of Natalie that she hates him and not to trust her. He strikes her across the face (giving her a cut and swollen lip) and continues to search for a pen. Natalie knows that unless he finds a pen and writes that down, he'll forget about the argument in a minute, and be none the wiser of her untrustworthiness. Angry at his violence towards her and aware of her ability to manipulate him to do what she wants, she walks out of the house and sits in her car - staring at him through the window. He still scrambles but fails to find a pen. A few seconds pass, she gets out of the car again and enters the house. By now he has forgotten everything that just happened between them. He sees the cut on her face that he just made when he struck her and asks who did that to her? She tells him that Dodd beat her. Leonard replies that he himself will take care of him. Natalie's plan has worked and now she has gotten revenge on Leonard for his anger and violence by manipulating his condition - she didn't even need to convince him to kill Dodd anymore. She's gotten exactly what she wants. This for me is the only part of the film that works with the reverse narrative. It is sad and cruel how Natalie manipulates his condition, and seeing the seconds tick passed as he tries to look for a pen beore he forgets, is quite tense.

But other than that this film was disappointing for me. I don't know if maybe it was just my personal preference that I didn't enjoy it; perhaps it's more of a boy's film (every friend who recommended it to me was a boy), I'm not sure. By the end of the film I no longer cared for the cause and root of all the events, or for what spurred Leonard onto his wild goose chase.

If there are other films that are better but have still used the reverse narrative - please let me know. Maybe the plot of this film was just boring, and therefore made the narrative device not work, or vice versa. All that I can say about this film is that it's not as clever as it thinks it is, nor as everybody else seems to think it is. What started as an interesting idea, ran out of steam quickly, and made the final half of the film insignificant and dull. This could all be just personal preference, however, and maybe this film works for others better than it did for myself.

Rating: 5/10 - worth a watch but only to see a film shown with a reverse narrative, enjoyable or not.


  1. I saw Memento in the cinema the very day it was released (year 2000) and it blew my mind (I was 19), though it definitely confused and gave me headache (it took me years to gather the wish to see it again). When I saw it again, two more times, I realized it's a film you can only truly enjoy if you understand its meaning. And the first time you see it, like it happened to you, you only understand that it's told in reverse because it's the only way to put the audience in the place of Leonard and his screwed up memory. But that's not the heart of the film. Personally, I've ended up not appreciating the reverse thing that much. What I love about the movie is the personal story of Leonard, his need for revenge. And what the movie tells us is that revenge is useless: no matter how many times you get to kill the person who ruined your life, your life will still be ruined. For me there's where the geniality of Nolan resides: he writes very complicated stuff, but there's a heart behind it all. I feel the same about Inception: the dream game is very interesting, but also tiresome, at least for me. What pulls me through the movie is DiCaprio's personal need for redemption.

    But Claudia, The Machinist has nothing to do with Christopher Nolan, it was directed by Brad Anderson (Session 9, Transsiberian).

    1. Oh dear, I have updated that error. I should really double check my assumptions.

      I think you're right Clara. Maybe a second viewing would help me to understand the film more and therefore enjoy it, rather than be baffled by the way it is in reverse. I like what you say about it showing revenge solves nothing. It will take me a while to want to watch it again, like you did, but I will definitely re-watch it someday. I did enjoy Inception more, but I guess both are films that need a second viewing at least. Thanks for reading and commenting Clara :)

    2. Oh, I enjoyed Inception much more than Memento too (the reverse estructure is really an issue, no matter how you look at it). But I think that's what happens with Nolan, he's so... brainy! You need a re-watch of most of his films to get past the complicated stuff and find the heart behind it.

      No, thank you for writing such well reasoned posts, Claudia :)