Last week I took a look at Christopher Nolan's first film; this week I'm looking at his second. Sometime in the next few weeks, expect looks at Insomnia and The Prestige.
Following may have played the independent theater circuit, but Christopher Nolan didn't enter the mainstream until the release of his second film, Memento. Nolan's second feature film uses many of the same tricks and teases that Following did, but here they're far better integrated into the film's plot. Furthermore, Memento is forty-five minutes longer than Following; Nolan has far more canvas on which to paint. Memento may not be as original as some critics think – it borrows a lot from its predecessor – but it remains one of the best thrillers I have ever seen.
The film's protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) lost his ability to create short-term memories on the night that his wife was raped and murdered by the mysterious "John G." Lest he forget his enemy's name and crimes, Leonard has tattooed his body with various details about the murder. He supplements his body-writing with an assortment of notes to himself, annotated Polaroids, and a map of the unnamed city he's staying in. But how can Leonard hope to catch his wife's killer when he doesn't even know how long it's been since the night of the crime? Besides, Leonard freely admits that he won't even remember taking his long-delayed (?) vengeance...
As does Following, Memento unfolds its story out of chronological order. In Nolan's first film, the protagonist always thinks he knows what's going on around him; the shuffling confuses the audience, but doesn't reflect his mental state. One of the few things that Memento's protagonists knows for sure is how much he does not know; the viewers share his bewilderment and confusion. Following's structural games are entertaining and intriguing, but the story would have functioned perfectly well with a more straightforward plot progression. Memento, on the other hand, would lose most of its poignancy and much of its suspense were it arranged in chronological order.
This is an odd sort of admission, but some of the best parts of Memento are the parts that aren't there. Following has an almost airtight plot; once you've seen everything, you can put all the story's pieces together and form a coherent story. Memento's story isn't entirely inscrutable, but there are several important events that we never see. The audience has far more interpretative freedom. Great mystery films have left out crucial information before – consider the general's chauffeur in The Big Sleep – but rarely in a manner so well-considered and clever as this film.
Nolan's films tend to be far more philosophically engaged than today's typical film. To be terribly reductive, Following discusses the seductive nature of evil, Batman Begins is about fear, The Dark Knight is about ends and means. Memento is about subjectivity and the nature of reality. As Leonard puts it early in the film: "Just because there are things I don't remember doesn't make my actions meaningless. The world doesn't just disappear when you close your eyes, does it?" Leonard recognizes solipsism as a peril; he knows that time passes, even if he doesn't remember it.
I'm not sure if Memento is Christopher Nolan's best film – I haven't seen Insomnia or The Prestige, for one thing, and The Dark Knight is one of my all-time favorite films. To say that Memento may be Nolan's greatest film is to give it a great deal of praise.