The thriller genre suffers from convoluted plot syndrome. All too often their stories amount to little more than a tangled knot, throwing so many names, places, and events at the viewer that their final twist comes not as a revelation but as a confused mess. The problem is pervasive; even early masterpieces like Lady from Shanghai make sense only during an attentive viewing; its intricacies cannot be clearly recalled afterwards.
But Memento is one of the few thrillers that dodges this problem entirely. Memento juggles dozens of macguffins, every plot point tied to a physical object, and Nolan maintains constant visual threads throughout each of them. Nolan presents our key plot points/objects (the two are inseparable) rapid-fire at the start, and maintains constant visual connection through the temporally backwards film, almost like maintaining a checklist in the viewer’s mind that unravels when and where each object was created.
The majority of these plot-devices are simple Polaroid photographs, taken by tough-guy Leonard (Guy Pierce) as a way to counter his short-term memory loss. His wife has been raped and killed, and the injury he sustained during a short tussle with the assailant prevents him from creating any new memories. In this way, Memento’s backwards plot structure is more than just a technical gimmick (as it has been in some previous works of similar structure) but ties the audience intrinsically into Leonard’s mind. He can’t remember the past, and, because we haven’t seen it yet, neither can we. As he struggles with trying to track down his wife’s killer, we share in his difficulties of trying to play detective without being able to remember anything. Memento’s time frame is confusing, often disrupting its backwards structure (which is easier to get used to than one might think), Nolan throws in lateral movements and flashbacks-within-flashbacks.
The end result is a film where we’re never quite sure exactly what has and has not happened. Memento brings in a satisfying final-act twist in typical thriller fashion, but questions are intentionally left unanswered. While the best thrillers end in a tightly-wound rope, Memento is frayed.
Obviously, this is intentional on Nolan’s part, a bold move that refuses to sacrifice the integrity of Leonard’s perspective for audience satiety. But in his outright dedication to Leonard’s condition, he’s failed to produce a character worth caring about. Leonard inherently has no emotional arc outside of any individual scene (how could he, both with the backwards structure and with the fact that he can’t remember the past beyond a few minutes?), and as such, despite its intriguing premise, Memento feels strangely bland. We root for Leonard because he’s the film’s only constant to hang on to, not because we genuinely care about him or his woman-in-the-refrigerator quest.
But Memento succeeds where it needs to. If not a work of impressive storytelling it is at the least a testament to Nolan’s skill in the director’s chair, and the rare budget thriller that keeps backsides in seats all the way through. It’s hardly the masterpiece it’s often made out to be, but Memento certainly is an experience to remember.