For this month’s final review for Genre Grandeur – Unreliable Narrator movies here’s a review of Memento (2000) by Lisa Leehey of Critical Critics.
In case you missed any of them, here’s a recap:
- Toto the Hero (1991) – David
- Tenet (2020) – Darren
- Shutter Island (2010) – James
- Usual Suspects, The (1995) – Rob
- Sans Soliel (1983) – David
- Cabinet of Dr. Caligali, The (1920) – Sally
- Cabinet of Dr. Caligali, The (1920) – David
- I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) – James
- Rashomon (1950) – David
- Memento (2000) – Rob
- Memento (2000) – Lisa
In addition, I watched and reviewed 4 movies for my companion series Genre Guesstimation. Unfortunately, none of them will now be considered among my favorites of the genre.
Thanks again to Lisa Leehey of Critical Critics for choosing this month’s genre.
Next month’s genre has been chosen by Aaron Neuwirth of the Code is Zeek and we will be reviewing our favorite Horror-Comedy Films.
Please get me your submissions by the 25th of Feb by sending them to firstname.lastname@example.org
Try to think out of the box! Great choice Aaron!
Let’s see what Lisa thought of this movie:
In a parking lot almost 20 years ago, a friend was bombarded by my endless babbling about Memento, an independent film about a guy with no short-term memory, a film with a scrambled narrative structure, and a film I have yet to stop babbling about. I had seen nothing like it, and to date, I am hard-pressed to find a film that rivals its brilliance in character ambiguity, narrative style, and grip on my attention. Five years later, when I began preparing to teach an Honors level senior English course in short fiction, I browsed idly through my anthology’s table of contents, and one short story – “Memento Mori,” written by Jonathan Nolan – became the very first text on my syllabus. My obsession has continued for more than a decade, and I have the pleasure of showing Memento to seniors every year — sometimes more than one class!
There are few pleasures for me in life outside of being surprised by stories, and the most-loved of these come from stories narrated by someone we shouldn’t trust. In case you’re not familiar with Memento, our protagonist is Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a man whose wife was raped and murdered by assailants who had broken into their home. In the scuffle, Leonard was injured, and now can no longer make new memories. Jonathan Nolan eloquently identifies his condition as CRS disease in his story, but the adaptation suggests it’s a kind of anterograde amnesia: Leonard can remember everything up to and including the incident, but he relies heavily on notes to live his life now. His purpose? To find the man who raped and murdered his wife, and Leonard will stop at nothing to solve this puzzle. Using his police file and a collection of ever-growing tattoos, Leonard (never Lenny) searches for the elusive “John G.”.
A film that relies on the narration of a man with no short-term memory might cause the average viewer some anguish in following the plot, but Nolan and editor Wally Pfister allow the audience a small adjustment period to the dual strains of this story. In the black and white strain, Leonard speaks on the telephone to an unknown individual, explaining his condition and telling the story of Sammy Jankis, a man who shares Leonard’s condition; this strain runs chronologically, as most stories do. The strain filmed in color, however, begins at the end of Leonard’s tale and provides snapshots (pun intended) of Leonard’s search; each fragment reveals more and more of the plot, and each fragment ends where its predecessor began, forming a jigsaw of scrambled storytelling that requires your short-term memory to focus. Remember, this was 2000 — before cellphones were ubiquitous in every movie theater. Don’t fret, though… years of high school seniors have confirmed that you will get used to the format within the first twenty minutes, and you definitely won’t want to break the film up into multiple days of viewing!
Because Leonard can’t remember, the puzzle pieces don’t always land where they should, and we, the viewers, are left helpless as we try to remember how each new character plays a role in Leonard’s search. Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) seems pretty shady, with his “sinister mustache” and his leering envy of Leonard’s Jaguar. Natalie (Carrie Anne Moss) is also looking for her lost love, yet she also sees ways to use Leonard’s trust to her advantage. Pantoliano’s and Moss’s portrayals of these two shine just as brightly as Pearce’s Leonard; Natalie works her feminine wiles on Leonard, acting as a damsel in distress and playing on Leonard’s emotions about failing to save his wife. Teddy’s sneaky grin and Leonard’s note “Don’t trust his lies.” drive viewers (and my students) further and further away as the film continues. Pantoliano is absolutely brilliant as the slimy Teddy whose quips bring the lion’s share of comic relief to an otherwise heavy situation; it’s pretty impossible to imagine anyone else in this role.
The Nolan brothers expertly force viewers to trust in a man who can’t even trust his own handwriting, Polaroids, and numerous tattoos; clearly, we can’t trust the people around him, and if we can’t trust our narrator, then with whom are we left? The camera only shows us what Nolan wants us to see, and we are carried along on Leonard’s shoulder and in Leonard’s pocket for the entirety of the film… save for a single blink-and-you-miss-it moment during Sammy Jankis’ story (hint – watch carefully when Sammy is in the medical care center). In this single split-second, we are handed two-three frames of purely objective narration; better keep your remote handy for this one.
We’ve encountered unreliable narrators before, but typically, they turn out to be villains we are ashamed to discover we’ve trusted. Memento brings the unreliable narrator trope to the stratosphere, luring in viewers through sympathy for a lost wife and a lost memory, through the mistrust of those nasty people who keep taking advantage of our hero, and through our arrogance that we will figure everything out for Leonard so he can finally rest. What we forget, though, is the most important element, that “memory is unreliable..And memories can be distorted.” Leonard relies on facts, and the fact is… you can’t always trust your narrators.