Memento: Christopher Nolan’s Breakout Masterpiece

Uno momento.

Christopher Nolan’s neo-noir psychological thriller is a dark, brooding, existential, and creative take on the genre.

Memento arrived in 2000 and mesmerised many who saw it. The director’s distinctive use of time sequences – interspersed – demands viewers think intelligently about what they’re watching. And, indeed, you’ll need to view it at least more than once.

Memento (Nolan’s Debut Film)

The film follows the antics of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce – fresh from his turn in the excellent cult classic Ravenous), who has anterograde amnesia following an incident in his “former” life.

His wife dies in an attack at their home, with Leonard suffering head trauma that leaves him incapable of forming short term memories.

Now in his new life, he’s taken it upon himself – after feeling let down by the police force – to hunt down the surviving attacker and kill the man in a classic story of revenge.

Due to his memory issues, however, he has daily bouts of waking confusion.

To help keep his mission clear in his mind, he tattoos important notes and goals onto his body.

He comes across these occasionally and they provide a spur of the moment rush for him.

Seemingly helping him on his undertaking is Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), who always comes across as shifty as anything. And there’s also Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), who appears happy to help Leonard.

As the film plays out in seperate parts, viewers are often left as confused as Leonard to the general goings on.

As he can’t remember anything, he soons forgots instances of betrayal and malice. And through it all, he thinks he is the hero. At least, that’s what he tells himself.

He lives in a type of constant fugue state. Yet his medical condition leaves him with a strangely charming sunny disposition, but the inherent sadness of his situation is always present. He is, in many ways, already dead.

His bumbling presence – despite his obvious intelligence – places him in constant danger. At one point he’s running from a gun-wielding lunatic, but can’t remember why.

He ends up at his attacker’s flat, forgets why he’s there, takes a shower, and has a naked wrestle with his enemy. Weirdly comical.

So it’s that sense of confusion overriding what would normally be a straightforward revenge thriller that sticks with you.

We won’t go into too many more details about the plot development (in case you want to watch the film and enjoy it spoiler free), but it soon becomes apparent few people are who they seem to be.

And that includes Leonard. Teddy lands some startling revelations on him, but he refuses to abandon what is really his only purpose in life.

In many respects, you can view the film as a consideration on disability. Leonard is handsome and intelligent.

But he’s now ruined in the eyes of society and left to faff about with wild abandon. There is no real support. He’s merely a nuisance others manipulate.

He goes along with it, willingly, as there’s nothing else.

20 years on from filming wrapped and, although Nolan has moved on to much weightier subject matter, his debut is still mightily impressive.

Memento is clever and engrossing, with its fractured narrative demanding repeated viewings. Miss a second of screen time and you can lose a subtle nod or gesture that gives away what’s really going on.

We still think Inception is possibly Nolan’s masterpiece, but with this film the Londoner makes it clear he’s happy to challenge audiences with demanding projects that can only be completed with masterful skill.

Memento’s Production

Although a small production, the budget was $9 million and there are a host of big name stars here.

They’re all terrific, especially Guy Pearce who shows off impressive range. He’s Australian, of course, but has a natural knack for accents that few can even dream of.

Brad Pitt was supposed to take the lead role, but due to scheduling conflicts Nolan had to look elsewhere – Pearce impressed the most.

He commands the film impressively and it’s strange he’s not taken many more noteworthy lead roles like this, although the Australian does seem to prefer more independent projects than big blockbuster Hollywood fair.

Carrie-Anne Moss, meanwhile, gets to show off an impressive range. She’d just come from the success of The Matrix and had recommended co-star Joe Pantaliano to Nolan for the role of Teddy.

The cast is small, sure, but that’s all we require. Nolan made an incredible statement with his first outing, an intelligent and thought provoking film that still challenges to this day.

Memento’s Story Development

Christopher and his brother Johnathan took the concept the latter came up with to develop it into a film concept.

Once production wrapped, Nolan took Memento around film festival circuits and was met with a largely rapturous reception.

At the Venice Film Festival, it received a standing ovation. This endeared it to publishers, who eventually sent it out to 20 countries – it made $40 million off its $9 million budget.

A modest success, but one that paved the way for Nolan to advance his many concepts.

Memento’s Interpretations

Right, since its release an enormous amount of hypothesising has gone into the film.

Almost all of it to do with Leonard and his purpose in life, along with his desire to manipulate his reality to have some sort of goal in his otherwise pointless existence.

And it’s bleak. Were he to remember he’s completed his goal of killing his wife’s attackers (although some fans debate whether he’s  achieved that), then all he could do is descend into total grief and despair.

Although it’s hardly a long-term solution and his life expectancy is limited due to his ongoing actions, his manipulation of facts keep him going.

But they also make him the bad guy – an anti-hero. He’s essentially a bounty hunter, going around being used by others to wipe out local criminals in the community.

Teddy does confront him about that and presents troubling facts to support himself, which Leonard decides to destroy and distort so he can keep on living what’s left of his life.

However, other fans suggest Leonard doesn’t even have anterograde amnesia. He’s faking it to provide himself with something to cling to – although we find little evidence to support that theory.

We can’t think of a film where existential philosophy fits more snugly, in its dark yet lucid way.


  1. Memento is, without a doubt, one of the greatest films ever made. The whole idea of telling a story backwards and forward at the same time was highly innovative, and it definitely makes watching it a second time a completely different experience. It’s a bit of a shame present-day independent filmmakers rarely strive to be this ambitious, instead settling for playing it safe more often than not.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s incredibly ambitious as a debut, it really could have fallen flat on its arse. But its masterly in every respect. Very impressive indeed, even if it had been his only film. But Nolan has kind of added to his legacy since.

      See what us Brits is capable of? Innit.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review!

    Memento is indeed a great debut, and I believe that it easily enters Nolan’s top 3 together with Dunkirk and The Prestige (I disagree with you on Inception, which I think it’s a bit of a mess…)! I’ve heard of a version of Memento with chronological editing, which sounds cool, have you had the chance to see that one?

    Liked by 1 person

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