Christopher Nolan's first feature film, "Following," didn't earn much of one, but his second film certainly made up for it. "Memento" started off in relative obscurity but has steadily built in momentum to where it's now considered a cult classic—a fresh take on an old genre, the psychological thriller. After seeing it, finally, I'll confirm that "Memento" is one stylish, intelligent, and taut high-wire act.
It's a real puzzler, and yet, Nolan lays his cards right on the table. An establishing shot shows a close-up of a hand holding a Polaroid photo and waving it so that it can develop. Only this Polaroid photo develops in reverse. We see a man who's been shot point-blank and the killer takes a picture, then as he waves it, the image slowly disappears. It's a tip-off that what follows will also be in reverse, and that's exactly what happens.
Based on a short story, "Memento Mori," written by brother Jonathan, "Memento" starts with the very last scene and proceeds scene-by-scene in reverse order, ending, finally, with what would normally be the beginning. That's not the only interesting thing about the structure. What adds intrigue as well are black-and-white sequences scattered throughout the film that invite us to find a pattern and speculate how those scenes are different from the color ones. At first it seems as if they could be a visualization of an internal monologue, because the narrator talks in voiceover. But then we see the main character talking on the phone, which begs the obvious question, Who in the world is he talking to?
Then there's the character ambiguity. "Memento" involves a man who sustained short-term memory loss during the rape and murder of his wife. We don't know any more about him than he does right now, and that's pretty sketchy. The other two main characters, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano, "The Sopranos") and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), may be friends and they may be enemies. Or they just might be using him for their own purposes. For that matter, we're not even sure if partial amnesiac Leonard (Guy Pearce) is a good guy or a bad guy. And Leonard and Teddy both have versions of what happened, so there's also the question of which one is the reliable narrator? Or is neither of them reliable? Is someone setting him up? Did he kill the wrong guy? There are plenty of questions swirling around to make this little snow globe fascinating. Even moments in the narrative that could be obvious are given an interesting twist because of the main character's condition. "Okay," he says to himself. "So what am I doing? Oh. I'm chasing this guy. . . . No, he's chasing me." It's that kind of ambiguity that makes "Memento" work.
Leonard, an insurance investigator, takes Polaroid pictures and writes notes to himself in order to help him get through each day and get closer to figuring out what really happened to his wife. He also has tattoos on his body to remind him. Things like "John G. raped and murdered my wife." And he keeps quoting another short-term memory loss fellow named Sammy Jankis with the same combination of awe and fondness that a safecracker might use in speaking of a legendary bank robber. On the back of one photo is written "He's the one—kill him." But as in "50 First Dates," though of course with more noir style, it's back to square one every day—much to the annoyance of the manager of the cheap hotel where he's renting a room long-term.
All of which makes for a suspenseful narrative. But as with any complex concept, there are questions that intrude if you let them. If Leonard has trauma-induced short-term memory loss, why does he remember in detail some of the events surrounding his wife's murder? If he needs notes to remind him of everything, why doesn't he forget more things during each scene? How is he capable of long and lucid monologues over the phone? Why does Leonard seem to remember so much about this Sammy Jankis guy? And why, if he only has short-term memory and can handle a current interaction, does he allow Natalie to go on and on insulting his wife while she laughs and says he's going to forget by tomorrow anyway?
By the time we get to the end, the impulse is to go to scene selection and watch it in chronological order. The Limited Edition actually had a play option that did just that. The Blu-ray version does not. So you're left doing what the filmmaker intended: using your memory to piece together the narrative.
Video: Mastered in High Definition (of course), the Blu-ray version of "Memento" is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen (1920x1080p resolution). The black level seems to be deliberately set lower for the color sequences in order to make for better segues to the black-and-white ones, and the entire palette changes to fit the character's situation and mood. Some scenes are fully saturated and brightly colored, while others are more industrial-looking. But the picture quality is pretty sharp overall, with very slight grain in some shots. Sony seems to have addressed the problem of noticeable hiccups, because I haven't seen any annoying stoppages on Blu-rays that street on August 15 ("RV," "RoboCop," and now "Memento"). That's good news.
Audio: The English PCM 5.1 (uncompressed) sound is excellent, though the default is a standard English Dolby Digital 5.1 so be sure to select from the menu before you begin. My Samsung player doesn't allow me to change audio or subtitle tracks with the remote, so it's a pain to have to pick the right one to begin with. The standard 5.1 has a flatter sound with more center-speaker action than the uncompressed sound, which is just more vital. Subtitles are in English and English SDH.
Extras: The extras are a director's commentary and "Anatomy of a Scene" featurette recycled from the Limited Edition SD. Nolan's commentary is pretty bland and you have to wade through a lot of how-this-was-shot slush to get to the real information that you want—more explanations of what was going on, and what Nolan intended—but it's worth it to get those kind of revelations that do clear a few things up. Don't make the mistake of watching this commentary or the bonus feature first, though, because each contains spoilers. "Anatomy of a Scene" is pretty by-the-book, with the usual blend of talking heads and clips from the film.
Bottom Line: "Memento" received Oscar nominations for original screenplay and editing, and the acting is strong as well. But it is gimmicky, and there are enough apparent inconsistencies that will drive some puzzler fans nuts, while others may not even get what's going on by film's end. But because "Memento" has the kind of style that drove "Pulp Fiction" (though without the humor), it's easy to overlook any shortcomings.