Leonard: "I am Leonard Shelby. I am from San Francisco."
Teddy: "That's who you were. That's not what you've become."
Leonard Shelby has a "condition." He'll be the first one to tell you. He'll be the second one to tell you. He'll even be the third one to tell you. But whether this condition makes sufferers behave the way Leonard does in director Christopher Nolan's 'Memento' is a question for the experts. Factual inconsistencies side, his condition does make for one trippy, challenging movie.
Told in a convoluted, flashback-filled narrative, Leonard witnesses the death of his wife and subsequently develops short-term memory loss. He can remember everything bout his life before his wife's murder, but every memory afterward disappears within moments. Since he can no longer file away the events of his life in his head, he writes notes and sticks them in his pockets. He takes Polaroids and adds captions. He even turns himself into an illustrated man, tattooing upon his every limb "the facts," immutable truths about the man who raped and murdered his wife. The man he has sworn to find and kill.
But Nolan isn't content to merely tell the story of a man with no short-term memory trying to avenge his wife's murder. In a daring and completely rewarding gamble, the story is told backward. The ending comes first, followed by the scene that, in real time, came before it. It's a clever conceit that's not just high-concept trickery. Nolan has created a masterful approximation of life the way Leonard experiences it. We don't just live in Leonard's world. We live in Leonard's head. When he looks at a Polaroid with the caption "Don't believe his lies," neither he nor we know why he wrote it. And when we find out, it's dramatically satisfying and helps him (and us) solve the mystery.
Leonard's condition is juxtaposed with the saga of Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), a case from Leonard's former life as an insurance investigator. Jankis suffered the same short-term memory affliction as Leonard, who refused to pay out on Jankis's insurance claim because Sammy's condition was considered psychological, not physical. The identity of Sammy Jankis is just another clever way Nolan (working from an original story written by his brother Jonathan) uses memory to deceive not only the audience but also the characters. Memory is untrustworthy and can be clouded by emotions, faded by distance, and manipulated by perception and prejudice.
Guy Pearce is dead-on as Leonard. He shows sinewy determination while still allowing the edges to fray as he tries to piece together who murdered his wife. The ever-reliable Joe Pantoliano keeps viewers off balance; he seems smarmy enough to hurt Leonard, yet friendly enough to be helpful. Nolan, who never sacrifices the story for the storytelling, saves his best trick for last. In a film that begins with the end, how interesting can the actual end of the movie be? 'Memento's final revelations justify the journey. Leonard is trapped in an endless loop, as the audience realizes something he never will: nothing can lie like the facts.
Sony had previously released 'Memento' in two separate standard DVD editions, each utilizing a different transfer, and this Blu-ray version appears to be minted from the same master as the subsequent Limited Edition. Presented here in 2.35:1 widescreen and 1080p video, and encoded with MPEG2 compression codec, 'Memento' looks good, sometimes great, but is ultimately problematic.
Overall, 'Memento' looks generally pleasing on Blu-ray, if rather soft. The source print is quite clean, with no obvious blemishes or anomalies and a surprising lack of grain. Contrast can be quite good at times, even great, yet some scenes appear flatter than others. Detail is rather inconsistent -- the 2-D-ness of the transfer sometimes resembles standard DVD, while other times the image really pops. Shadow delineation, however, is better than you'd imagine, with many of the dark scenes boasting subtle details even in the dimmest areas of the picture. Colors, too, are a mixed bag -- many scenes boast quite vivid hues that are smooth and clean, yet other times bland. Note that a considerable portion of 'Memento' was also shot in black & white, and those sequences look fairly detailed, though they also suffer from softness
Alas, despite its good points, I was quite disappointed with this transfer in the end, because I saw a frequent and unacceptable amount of video noise and compression artifacts. There are frequent areas of the picture, both during the color and black & white segments, where macroblocking and video noise are clearly visible (and it isn't film grain, which would be consistent in size).
'Memento's somewhat wonky sound design makes the audio quality of this disc a tough one to judge. It is not that there is anything wrong or bad about it, and it is certainly an impressive presentation for an independent film made on such a low budget. However, the mix can be wildly inconsistent, with some scenes terrific and others dull and lifeless.
Like all of Sony's Blu-ray launch titles, 'Memento' is presented in uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround. Dynamic range is quite good for an indie film. Dialogue sounds natural and well-recorded, with a fairly warm and spacious presence to the mid- and high-range (though low bass is pretty anemic). Surround use, however, is usually lacking. The majority of the film is entirely front heavy, with a few noticeable stereo effects but little else of interest. The rear channels only kick in sporadically, yet so forceful at times they feel out of place and distracting. Personally, I prefer sound design that is consistent and immersive, that doesn't "show off" the rears for big dramatic moments and then disappear. However, that is entirely subjective, so at least in pure technical terms, 'Memento' sounds just fine.
Sony released 'Memento' not once but twice on standard DVD, first as a largely movie-only edition and a second time in a very controversial, feature-laden limited edition release. That latter version, though boasting some fine extras, had a menu navigation system that was so convoluted it made following the movie's twists and turns child's play by comparison. For once, I'm thankful a studio did not cart over all the extras from the previous DVD, with that menu monstrosity dropped in favor of the standard Blu-ray seamless navigation system. Thank god.
Unfortunately, menus aside, the actual extras on this disc have been quite streamlined from the Limited Edition DVD. The main supplement included is a screen-specific audio commentary with director Christopher Nolan that is not, I'm afraid, a particularly good one. Now, I know Nolan is a very smart guy, and I have nothing against someone being soft-spoken (as am I). But he primarily recounts what is happening on screen, punctuated by gaps of silence. And what insight he does share is limited to the technical aspects of how a specific shot was conceived and executed. This is doubly disappointing since Nolan wrote the screenplay for 'Memento' (basing it on a short story by his brother Jonathan Nolan), and it remains one of the most daring, original and twisted scripts in recent memory. This track really could have been, and should have been, something more special.
The sole other extra is the 25 minute Sundance Channel "Anatomy of a Scene" featurette. It includes interviews with Nolan, editor Dody Dorn, composer David Julyan and star Joe Pantoliano (though no Guy Pearce). Like most of these "Anatomy of a Scene" specials, it is nicely done and insightful, though because it is limited to a single scene it doesn't make a great companion piece to the already too-technical, too myopic commentary.
Note that among some of the missing extras on this Blu-ray disc include the original short story upon which Nolan based his script, extensive director's notes, many "hidden" easter eggs, and best of all, a "Chronological" version of the film that was reedited to show the picture in a more standard narrative fashion. Alas, given all the goodies that came before, this Blu-ray version can't help but feel sadly undernourished.
'Memento' is a true cinematic original, an audacious feat of narrative gymnastics that manages to transcend its structural gimmick to achieve a haunting resonance. Sony has put together a fairly good Blu-ray release on paper; with an initially good-looking transfer, a solid soundtrack and a couple of extras. Alas, upon closer examination the transfer suffers from an unacceptable level of compression artifacts. I also wish Sony didn't need to sacrifice extras for bit space, because I don't think Blu-ray is going to succeed unless it offers at least as comprehensive a supplemental package as standard DVD. All in all, 'Memento' is tough to recommend given these negatives.