It's a movie told backwards. That's unique and inventive. That makes it amazing. Right?
Actually, no it doesn't. And it's not even that unique or inventive. Several films have used this story-telling device, Gaspar Noé's Irreversible for one, and used it to better effect.
In Memento the story-telling device makes sense thematically. He has no short term memory, so he loses place of where he is and what he's doing and has to figure that out from his notes, photographs and tattoos. He's trying to build what's going on without knowing what just happened, and so is the viewer. The problem in doing that is it makes the storyline insanely difficult to follow, especially when the story is this intricate and complex. Even those who are able to follow the story feel as if their mind had just run a marathon.
The difference, though, between a marathon and Memento, is that after completing a marathon the runner is rewarded for his or her feat with a sense of accomplishment. Memento doesn't reward the viewer with enough deepness or amazing photography or overwhelming performances to compensate for the mental gymnastics he or she had to do to simple understand the story.
The ultimate conclusion or statement behind the film is that we all lie to ourselves; we "make our own realities." The twist that reveals this idea is surprising, as almost all twists are, but that's because it comes out of nowhere. For a twist to really hit home, there needs to be doubt in the minds of the viewer concerning the subject matter of the twist, like in The Sixth Sense or Fight Club. Otherwise the twist is just forced upon the viewer, and more or less evokes the same reaction as a deus ex machina; a feeling of being cheated. If you're gonna make me run through hoops like this, you gotta give me something more profound than "I make my own reality."
Christopher Nolan is usually pretty understated with his cinematography, but
here, because the story is so tough to follow, he has to be extra sparse with it. The audience is just following the story, and has no beautiful photography to marvel at along the way. Also Guy Pearce's dead pan performance is a little off. Dead pan acting usually suggests an inner conflict which leads to indecision and a sense of not knowing how to feel. Lenny doesn't really seem to suffer from this conflict. He's supposed to be chasing his wife's murderer; why is he so calm and restrained in doing so? Shouldn't he be more angry, aggressive and frantic?
It's somewhat frustrating to feel obligated to make the comparison between Memento and Irreversible, but due to the similar and rare device we are forced. Irreversible succeeds with this device where Memento fails for several reasons. The story of Irreversible is much simpler and more straightforward--it's easier to follow when told backward. The cinematography of Irreversible is amazing, allowing us to marvel at it and keep us going while we try to put together the story. The argument behind Irreversible for hard determinism--"Time destroys everything"--is much stronger and more hard-hitting than "I make my own reality." Vincent Cassel in Irreversible is also chasing his lover's killer, but is more emotional and desperate than Pearce in his pursuit, as someone in such a dire position should be. These differences admittedly are in part due to the different tones of the two movies, but it still seams that Irreversible and other achronological films, such as Nacho Vigalondo's Timecrimes, were later able to fine-tune this story-telling concept and make it more compelling and meaningful.
There is no question that Memento deserves an "A" for effort. The script is intricate, detailed and precise, and the scenes in black and white that are played forward, with Pearce on the phone with the cops, and wonderfully done. But you have to ask just how much does the film gain by being unraveled in reverse? The story was be just as compelling and meaningful if it were told forward, and the audience wouldn't have headaches trying to put together scenes in reverse order.