I have a sort of annoying habit as a film reviewer where I will give a film a relatively high rating, but then give it a mediocre review. In general, I would say that this habit comes out most prominently when I am reviewing films that I think just missed the mark of greatness or films that I think were overpraised.
Memento, hailed as a visionary expansion of the thriller and neo-noir genres in 2000, falls into the second category. It is wildly overpraised.
Memento centers on Leonard (Guy Pearce), an insurance investigator who suffers from anterograde amnesia – which means that he is unable to form new memories – brought on after he was injured when he and his wife (Jorja Fox) were attacked and she was raped and killed. The police believe the assailant was also killed, but Leonard thinks otherwise and has embarked on a quest to find and kill the man who raped and murdered his wife. He is assisted by Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) and, most mysteriously, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), who Leonard shoots and kills during the opening credits of the movie.
So, now I get to use fancy words. Memento is most celebrated because of its unique sujet (structure) as opposed to its fabula (narrative). It is composed of two sets of scenes, a black and white story told chronologically from beginning to end, and scenes shot in color, which are shown in reverse chronological order. I should clarify that, the action in each individual scene is viewed from start to finish, but the scenes are shown in the reverse chronological order relative to each other. The chronological, black and white scenes alternate with the color reverse chronological scenes. According to every film reviewer and psychologist this approach simulates the perception of individuals who suffer from anterograde amnesia.
That’s all great, but amnesia is an ineffective hook for a film. Amnesiacs might be interesting to psychology students, but, as characters, they aren’t very compelling. Teddy actually explains this to Leonard a couple of times. He knows who he was, but he doesn’t know who he is. Consequently, neither do we. As a result, Memento’s resolution isn’t really emotionally satisfying. Emotionally, the high point of the movie is actually a story within the story that Leonard relates regarding the fate of another person with anterograde amnesia, Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky) and his wife (Harriet Sansom Harris).
In some ways, Memento is the film that put Nolan on the map, but it’s also a film that presaged a couple of his more annoying tics as a director, most notably, making films inspired by the notes in the margins of his little brother Jonathan’s psych class notebooks. The mystery at the heart of Memento is simply not that compelling when viewed in chronological order, which you can do if you have the special edition DVD. Consequently, this is a film that is all about its sujet, while neglecting its fabula. As a result, Memento isn’t a classic. On a second viewing, its story becomes much more clear, but it becomes clearer still that all Memento really is is a slick, serious minded update of the 1994 Dana Carvey vehicle Clean Slate.