Guy Pearce in Memento

Film Advent Calendar: Memento is a psychological thriller that finds the perfect way to tell its story

  • Story told back-to-front to give audience a sense of amnesia
  • Inventive twist on classic noir storytelling
  • December 22nd on NQ editor Matt Hartless's advent calendar of films you should watch this Christmas

Memento is known as the film filmed backwards. Many people see this as a gimmick.

But unlike films that employ a different technique just to stand out, there is a clear editorial reason for Memento being structured in the way it is.

Scene from Memento
Guy Pearce and Joe Pantoliano in Memento. Credit: Newmarket

Memento is a 2000 neo-noir psychological thriller directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano.

Leonard (Pearce) suffers from retrograde amnesia (he can’t make new memories) following a break-in that left him injured and his wife dead. Despite his condition he is determined to find the man who murdered his wife and is apparently being helped by a cop, Teddy (Pantoliano) and a woman named Natalie (Moss).

Half of Memento’s scenes are structured in reverse chronological order so that the first scene you see is the last moment, chronologically, in the film. The other half, in black and white, happen in chronological order while Leonard tells the story of Sammy Jankis, somebody from his past life before his injury. The two meet in the middle, so the centre of the timeline is the climax of the film.

Why is Memento structured like this? Christopher Nolan wanted to give the audience a sense of what short-term memory loss was like, so each scene starts with Leonard being in a place or doing something, but not knowing why. Because we don’t have the information, we don’t know either and so the focus of the story is not on what he did, because we know from the start, but why he did it and what led him to the conclusion that he had to.

Scene from Memento
Carrie-Anne Moss and Guy Pearce in Memento. Credit: Newmarket

To come up with such a story quirk and for it to fit completely into the plot is a work of genius, but this film has more going for it than simply the way it is told.

The acting performances are generally fantastic, you can never be sure of everyone’s motives and do not know who to trust, even with Leonard himself.

The plot is a compelling one too. It’s a spin on a classic noir plotline – hard-done-by detective seeks murderer but cannot trust anyone in this town. The fact that the detective can’t remember anything and has to work out who to trust based on notes left to himself which are open to interpretation.

So if you’re in the mood for a clever story with a tight plotline, Memento is a film you should watch this Christmas.

This article is part of the Film Advent Calendar series, where NQ editor Matt Hartless shares some of his favourite films in 24 different genres that you should watch if you need something to fill your time over the Christmas break.

Scene from Memento
Half of Memento is shot in black and white. Credit: Newmarket