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Retro Review: Memento

Everything old is new again, or so it seems. In Retro Review, our resident film buffs take a dive into a movie classic -- and tell us why it worked then, and whether it still works now. This week, Matthew Parkhill takes us through Nolan's fractured breakthrough film.


Memento is Christopher Nolan’s 2001 mystery-thriller that was lauded with two Oscar nominations and earned Nolan Best Screenplay across two years and five award groups. An early 2000's classic, it’s safe to say it put the young director and his brother writer on the map, being one of the Nolan brothers’ earliest mainstream films.

It follows Leonard Shelby, whose story has been shattered after losing his short-term memory and suffering from a form of anterograde amnesia. His last memory? Watching his wife slowly die after a homeinvasion in which one of the attackers got away, leaving Shelby in his fractured state. Now Shelby uses Polaroids and tattoos to remind himself where he is and who he is after, his detective work littering his body and motel room. However, it becomes clear that too many people know his name, and over time his notes begin to betray a larger, more sinister story at play…

“I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can't remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world's still there. Do I believe the world's still there? Is it still out there?... Yeah. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I'm no different.”


Guy Pearce stars as Leonard Shelby, our protagonist, alongside Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano.


Guy Pearce, an Aussie from Geelong, launched his international career playing Ed Exley in L.A. Confidential (1997); however, he started his career from more modest beginnings as one of the breakout stars on Neighbours in the mid-1980s. Pearce hopped in and out of Hollywood in mostly minor roles until being nominated for best actor for his role in Memento at the Saturn awards, receiving numerous acting accolades over his career. In L.A Confidential, Pearce stole the screen from Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey.

Carrie-Anne Moss is the unforgettable Trinity from The Matrix saga, another actress who has earned her clout from the late 90-2000s. As Natalie in Memento, Moss’ air of dominance and mystery adds to the film's eerie and foggy feel whilst our protagonist tries desperately to collect his memory. Behind her edgy facade, even the audience will struggle to find out if she is friend or foe.

Joe Pantoliano is one of those minor cinema legends who has had his hand in some of the most genre-defining films and shows in cinema history, betraying Neo in The Matrix (1999) as Cypher; as well as Ralphie in The Sopranos (1999-2007). Ninteie's kids might also know his eccentric acting style from his performance of villain Francis Fatellie from The Goonies (1985). In Memento, Pantoliano expertly transfers that eccentric, jovial manner into Leonard’s good old trusty buddy, Teddy, who only wants to help Leonard get his revenge and then get home.




Leonard, haunted by his last functional memory of his wife slowly bleeding out on the bathroom floor, looks for revenge in an indistinct town, as hazy as his recollection of events. Trying desperately to fill the gnawing void in his heart and mind, he reproduces his memories with mementos of his past, all the while piecing together the identity of the man who took everything from him

The film keeps you hooked through an unusual telling of the story: Christopher Nolan, the director, is known to heavily toy with the concept of time, and Memento is one of his earliest experiments, subverting time in a wholly unexpected way that was a first for its time.

The film actually moves in two directions. In scenes with bright colour, the film moves backwards in its telling of events and features more of the meaty action and intrigue. In monochrome, we explore Leonard’s psyche as we move forward through time. The two opposite yet complimentary narratives work to tell a full story despite their fractured nature. Eventually, the two narratives collide as colour bleeds into the black, and the tragic events of the film are made real.

This alternative style of storytelling is what made the Nolan brothers so famous in their early days and still inspires filmmakers today with its originality and daring nature.


Click here for the full review on The Atlantic


Memento’s exploration of a real and tragic medical condition, while not unheard of now, is still an uncommon story device and intriguing plot point from which to explore a classic thriller storyline. Combined with the films juxtaposing plot lines, which keep you glued to the screen as you piece together the puzzle, its style of storytelling is still as fresh as when it was released. 

As each detail of Leonard’s story is slowly revealed whilst you work your way backwards (or forwards?) through the film, you will be left guessing at every turn. Memento has a feeling of uneasiness and suspicion that every thriller strives to achieve and is a key indicator of its success. Similar films, such as Shutter Island (2010) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) largely owe their success to how they made their audiences squirm and question the narrative being sold to them, and Memento is a shining example of how very unusual film techniques can magnify that feeling. 

23 years on from its release in cinemas, Memento is still as fresh and as weird as when it hit the screens.


Yes. Any fan of thrillers or dramas will appreciate Memento’s quirky and unnatural sense of storytelling. Pearce’s portrayal of a confused but dangerous victim of an extraordinary condition will stick with you, and makes the film a classic you’ll keep running back to.




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