What initially made the “hero” of Christopher Nolan’s highly divisive Inception, a thought thief played by Leonardo DiCaprio, so provocative was that he was not to be trusted. Plagued by the roving, relentless avatar of his dead wife and the vast memory landscapes they shared, DiCaprio’s Cobb was a teetering liability, a fact that Ellen Page’s architect consistently brought up but never seemed to take root in Nolan’s direction nor, for that matter, in Mr. DiCaprio’s otherwise admirable performance. The character and his fantasies were too predictable, too controlled to ever be as dangerous as the dialogue would have led you to believe, and it’s part of why some (myself included) found it particularly hard to connect with the emotional undercurrent of Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister’s brilliantly crafted visual spectacle. As he was written, Cobb was a hero perpetually on the verge of becoming a formidable foe for both his team and himself, but it never came across.
The subjective nature of a protagonist’s moral certainty has been a favorite theme of Nolan’s throughout his career but it has never unfolded with such riveting bewilderment and devious precision as it does in Memento, his sophomore effort and something of a meta-prequel to Inception. Originally dreamt up as a short story idea by Jonathan Nolan, the director’s brother and sometimes collaborator, on a long car ride from Chicago to Los Angeles, Memento maintains a virtuosic balance between technical rigor and narrative ambition that transcends what dissenters considered a gimmick, which would be true if Nolan hadn’t invested the dark noir at the heart of his trickery with an increasingly devastating sense of dread and emotional urgency.
The hook concerns the advancement of the story in linear time starting both from the beginning and its end and then spliced together in lockstep motion. As we move backward, in color, from a murder committed by erstwhile claims adjuster Leonard (Guy Pierce), we also move forward, in black and white, as Leonard explains the actions that led him to the dingy motel he now calls home, including the crucial story of Sammy Jenkins (Stephen Tobolowsky), which Leonard consistently brings up. Using this unique structure, Nolan connects the audience directly to the frustration, suspense, and confusion that Leonard feels on account of a form of short-term memory loss that he picked up when a masked man slammed his head against a mirror during an in-home assault. Incapable of forming new memories for longer than 10 minutes, Leonard remains resilient in his quest to find the man who raped and murdered his wife and is responsible for his “condition.”
Memento, like Inception and Nolan’s undervalued The Prestige, is a film about filmmaking all dolled up in shadowy genre drag. Leonard’s struggle to acquire an unattainable, satiating justice for his wife, to finally feel a sense of completion could just as much be a struggle to complete the story, to piece back together the remnants of a narrative that has been splintered by Nolan and his production team, most notably editor Dody Dorn and production designer Patti Podesta. Indeed, part of what makes the film so haunting and frustrating is that we never really have concrete sense of time or what exactly Leonard has been up to, even before he falls in with a corrupt cop (Joe Pantoliano in top form) and a nasty drug dealer with an even nastier girlfriend (a very good Carrie-Ann Moss).
Pockets full of Polaroids with scribbled messages on the backs, body covered with tattooed messages, facts, and reminders, Leonard is himself a walking fractured storyline, perpetually staring at his own set of rules, schedules, and goals. Even his hotel room offers a panorama of maps, sketches, and notations meant to remind him of who he is and, more importantly, why he is. Dependent on his camera, Leonard is himself a man who must believe in the objectivity of the image, an idea that Nolan consistently puts the screws to. And it is a tribute to Nolan’s considerable talents that this multi-faceted allegorical landscape never overwhelms the sturdy, nightmarish noir that it labors under, which itself is driven by Pierce’s utterly absorbing and precisely attuned performance.
By the time we have reached the end, or whatever you might call it, it becomes terrifyingly clear the extent of which both Leonard and the audience have been deceived and have deceived themselves. Leonard’s ultimate weakness is that he believes that something will snap back in, feel healed or even cure him when his revenge has been carried out but we are privy to the grim reality of his situation. With its innumerable themes continuously slithering and contorting underneath, Memento is perhaps too sturdy a technical contraption but the radical design of that contraption stirs up radical notions of structure that begin to coincide with the persistent flashes of philosophical introspection. It’s not an unfair argument to say that Memento is just a highly stylized and peculiar genre study, but it entails making a similar, fatal decision that Leonard makes: to take a picture at face value.
Lionsgate’s 10th Anniversary Special Edition of Memento is a harsh rebuke to the usual practice of upgraded packaging rather than upgraded product. The 1080pc/AVC-encoded transfer boasts a negligible increase across the board, beginning with a huge improvement in depth of field, fine detail, and contrast. Even the black-and-white sequences seem to pop with a newfound clarity that I haven’t seen since I originally saw the film in theaters. Saturation and color levels are impeccable. The audio is just as remarkable, if in a far quieter way. Lionsgate keeps the talk clearly out front in the mix, but when the film does rev its engine, such as in a chase scene and a smattering of fight scenes, it boasts an immersive balance between dialogue, atmosphere sound, and David Julyan’s gloomy score. A huge improvement all around.
There’s plenty here, but a great deal of it is repetitive, confronting similar, obvious questions about the structure of the film. But Christopher Nolan’s commentary is very detailed, if a bit stiff at moments; he goes over a multitude of scenes with specific notes on in-production decisions he and his team made. The two featurettes and an interview with Nolan, conducted by erstwhile New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell, essentially serve the same purpose but aren’t complete wastes of time and do offer a few anecdotes about the genesis of the project. Sketches of Leonard’s tattoos, the short story by Jonathan Nolan that serves as the film’s source material, and pages from Leonard’s journal are also included.
To believe in the objectivity of the image and the word is to be lead into darkness in Christopher Nolan’s extraordinary meta-noir.