Christopher Nolan is one of the best film directors of his generation. Over a decade ago, he completely changed the way we view superhero films with “The Dark Knight” trilogy. Additionally, every film he makes seems to push the boundaries of storytelling while also banking at the box office. However, is Nolan‘s best film also his breakout film from 21 years ago?
Nolan has always had a fascination with nonlinear storylines. His first feature film, “Following” bounces between different sections on the timeline to make the audience question the main character’s relationship with other characters. However, Nolan pushed nonlinear structure to the limit with his next film, “Memento.“
“Memento” follows Leonard Shelby, a man with short term memory loss who’s hunting the man who killed his wife and caused his injury. In order to put the audience in Leonard’s shoes, Nolan structures the film in reverse chronological order. The opening shot is of a polaroid that slowly undevelops. Leonard puts the photo back into the camera and we understand that the shots are literally being played in reverse. This sets up “Memento’s” signature style that will become even more impressive as the film goes on.
The rest of “Memento” intercuts sequences of color with sequences of black and white. The black and white sequences are all in chronological order and tell the story of Sammy Jankis, a man with a similar condition to Leonard. Meanwhile, the scenes in each color sequence play out chronologically, however, each new sequence is shown in reverse order. Confused? You’re not alone. Check out Christopher Nolan himself explain it below.
As Nolan explains, there are even multiple flashbacks that appear in both the black and white and color sequences, proving “Memento” is an extremely ambitious film. However, this is part of what makes it Nolan’s best.
Throughout his career, Nolan has always strived to present his films in creative groundbreaking fashions. “The Prestige” is structured like a magic trick, “Inception” features multilayered storylines within people’s dreams, and “Dunkirk” intercuts three stories that each interpret time differently. However, these film’s had the advantage of big budgets and the backing of a major studio.
Meanwhile, “Memento” only had a budget of $4.5 million. This allowed Nolan to fully flex his directorial muscles. Nolan’s other works are pure genius, no doubt about it, but their budgets are necessary to their success.
“Memento” is a film that can be made on any budget by any director who has the creative instinct to pull it off. It’s as highbrow as any of his other films but without any fancy set pieces. “Memento” is proof that a great filmmaker can make a timeless film no matter the circumstances.