Everyone warned me that Memento would take a few watches to "get", and I have to agree, although perhaps not for quite the same reasons they were thinking. Screenwriter/director Christopher Nolan relates the story of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) - and his determination to avenge his wife's murder - in a non-linear format,
flying in the face of regular chronological story-telling. But that's not to say that the film is a total mess; quite the opposite, in fact. I spent perhaps 30 seconds pondering how I'd go about planning such an intricately plotted film, before giving up, utterly despondent.
You see, Leonard suffers from short-term memory loss. He's not an amnesiac, he would be quick to tell you - he knows who he is, but can't retain new information for more than about 15 minutes ever since the 'incident'. To cope with this significant handicap - 'his condition' - Leonard writes himself notes, tattoos essential information on his body, and takes photographs of pivotal people and places. As such, it's difficult to imagine a more effective device for putting the viewer in the same confused position as the film's protagonist than Memento's non-linear structure.
There are two parallel story-strands: one shot in black and white which runs chronologically, whilst a series of colour scenes run backwards. Together these two intertwining strands weave the larger story of Leonard's desperate bid to track down and find his wife's killer. This is so central to the film's thematic structure that Memento probably wouldn't work any other way. Nolan's film opens with Leonard killing Teddy (hence no spoilers for my saying so), but we start to perceive the complexity of the case fairly quickly, questioning whether this was justice after all. And it only gets more confusing from there on out.
Memento centres around the notions of memory and fact, which Leonard asserts are conflicting concepts, but by the end I wasn't so sure, at least, not for his reasons. This is where I think I might not quite be "getting" Nolan's point. To begin with it's easy to trust Leonard's system, to trust to fact, and see memory as irrelevant, or at best superfluous. As Leonard argues, the police don't sit there remembering what happened; they go out and find the facts. So, at first it seems that the film argues that morality is a constant, even in pinpoints of action: this man is a cruel murderer - vengeance is justice. Good is a known entity, and you don't need a detailed, multifaceted account of the story from all angles to act on the plain facts.
But what if the facts aren't really facts? The facts can be misinterpreted. For example, Leonard finds himself running through a trailer park, spots an assailant who he is chasing and so continues the pursuit. But then the other man shoots at him: 'Wait, no. He's chasing me'. It's a humorous moment, but to me it's a critique of the noir genre which this film echoes. I'm sure it's not just me that sometimes loses track of noir thrillers: why are we in the park now? Why is this guy important? Sometimes these investigation movies simply tie together interesting set pieces, the actual plotting becoming besides the point. (This is far from ubiquitous in the genre though - many are tightly plotted and intricately unravelled). Memento, emphasises and critiques this dislocation by using it as its key device, and, I think, so tries to show the importance of the connections, by slowly revealing the problems of pinpointed acts of justice; the wider moral meaning is effectively negated by the uncertainty of the act. This film's main aim it to stitch memory back together, as therein lies the true truth.