Few movies exploded with the force of a cultural powder keg like 'Memento,' at least in the circles where people were hungry for a bold new voice in cinema. Released in 2000, after the sea change-like slate of movies that, in 1999, seemed to proclaim an incendiary new direction in cinema (think about the movies that opened that year: 'Magnolia,' 'Fight Club,' and 'Being John Malkovich' to name a few), Christopher Nolan's 'Memento' seemed to make good on the promise of a brave new world of narrative features.
In short: nobody had seen anything quite like it.
Which isn't to say that the movie was 100 percent original, since it's steeped both in classic crime literature and the more jaunty, ironic, post-modern stuff that came out in the wake of Quentin Tarantino. The key difference with 'Memento' was its execution: the way that Nolan processed the film, framing it in a way that put you in the singular psychological and emotional state of our hero, the deeply afflicted Guy Pearce.
Pearce plays Leonard Shelby, a man who is afflicted with short-term memory loss. "I can't form new memories," he gravely intones. This is a problem, not only for his day-to-day operations as a human being, but also because he's a man driven by revenge: his wife was raped and murdered, and he's on the hunt for her killers. He writes notes to himself, takes Polaroid photos (a plot point that couldn't exist, ten years later, since Polaroid doesn't exist anymore in that form), and, most spectacularly, tattoos "rules" all over his body. He's an unforgettable character – anguished and driven in equal measure, and being put into his braincase, in the way that Nolan does, is nothing short of a trip.
The story of 'Memento' plays backwards. In the opening sequence we show him exacting his bloody vengeance on Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), a sequence that is played very literally backwards. (One striking image has a gun "jumping" backwards into Leonard's hand.) From there, the movie is told "backwards," with the viewer being forced to put things together in the same way Leonard does: in bits and pieces, fits and starts.
What role, if any, did Teddy play in Leonard's wife's murder? What about Carrie-Anne Moss, the femme fatale that offers Leonard a path to redemption? And how sure are we of any of Leonard's "memories" (shot in grainy black-and-white)?
And this would be all well and good (and spectacularly cool, as the kids would say) if that's all it was: a jazzy, cubist crime story. But Nolan's movie has more weight, punch, and importance because of the emotional wallop it carries. 'Memento,' is, at its heart, about a man with a broken heart, and as such, it is absolutely heartbreaking. There's a moment where Leonard is standing by a fire and he's burning Polaroids of his wife that absolutely destroys me every time. As easy as 'Memento' is to admire for its technical prowess and narrative formality, it's the piece's emotional punch that really makes it noteworthy and unforgettable.
It doesn't matter if you're watching 'Memento' for the first time or the thirtieth; it'll still get you in all the right ways. (And, no, knowing the several twists and narrative U-turns doesn't make it any less enjoyable.)
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The Lionsgate 'Memento' re-release comes housed on a 50GB Blu-ray disc ("director's approved," according to the Criterion-like sticker). The disc is Region A locked and has the good sense to not feature any meaningless BD-Live bells and whistles. The disc automatically plays, at which point a bizarre array of previews is shown, before getting to the enigmatic main menu.
'Memento' has already been released once on the Blu-ray format, in the early days, courtesy of Sony. That disc was always too expensive and bare bones for me to take the plunge, but word around the campfire (and by that I mean the internets) is that this 1080p AVC MPEG-encoded transfer (aspect ratio: 2.35:1) is a vast improvement. Considering I never saw the original disc, all I can testify is that this is a very, very good transfer indeed.
'Memento' revels in its blue-collar grittiness, the kind of nondescript warehouses and hotel rooms where people like Leonard and Teddy could operate without much suspicion. As such, the transfer vividly brings these backdrops to life – the level of detail is staggering. The textures are ridiculously on-point, skin tones look great, and black levels are deep and inky (particularly satisfying given the film noir blood that courses through 'Memento's veins).
Leonard as a character is an amazing visual feat – with his bleach blonde hair, the tattoos that are less inked than etched all over his body, and that particular look of determined distain that is painted all over his face, and Leonard has never looked better.
There's a noticeable lacquer of grain over the entire film, with the black-and-white segments looking particularly hazy and diffused (this is a stylistic decision, obviously, and the film has never, ever looked better). There are some occasionally noticeable artifacts that crop up from time to time, but otherwise the transfer is spectacularly clear, free of both filmic foibles and glitchy technical issues.
Again, I can't speak to the quality of the first 'Memento' disc's audio, but the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix here is dynamite.
'Memento,' from a sound design point of view, is about two things – one, the clipped, crime novel dialogue, and building mood through a palpable sense of atmosphere. In both cases, this mix succeeds with flying colors.
First thing's first – the dialogue is crisp and clear and well prioritized. There's a fair amount of narration, which comes across as sharp and nicely placed. You have to pay attention in 'Memento,' so the clarity is duly appreciated.
The surround mix also springs to life every so often, and when it's not fully activated still can be felt in the quieter, less boisterous sequences. The surround channels are used to build mood, maintain atmosphere, and create the film's singular sense of place. The score, too, by David Julyan sounds amazing – the flashback sequences buzz with a glitchy electronic chirp while the more traditional scenes have a more traditional sound (both sparkle).
Sound effects are punchy and well placed, and over-all the mix is a dynamic, not overactive mix that will impress discerning audiophiles, if not blow them away. I was impressed.
Also on the disc is an English Dolby Digital 2.0 mix and subtitles in English, English SDH, and Spanish.
There are some nice extras on this Blu-ray disc, with only a couple of them being new (everything else appeared either on the deluxe edition DVD or previously-released Sony Blu-ray). If I'm overlooking something, or have grouped a special feature inappropriately, please let me know!
'Memento' has firmly established itself as a new crime classic. Christopher Nolan's twisty, turny, deeply felt revenge tale has retained its primal power some ten years later, and Lionsgate has done a great job delivering a Blu-ray disc every bit as worthy of the film itself. While I haven't seen the original Sony release, I was blown away by this disc's presentation and the fair amount of tantalizing extra features, both new and old. This is a Blu-ray actually worthy of the film, which is saying a lot. A must own.