Monday, July 11, 2011
Great Last Scenes: Memento
Director: Christopher Nolan
Great Because...: It demonstrates an elegant about-face in terms of how it asks us to view the protagonist. Thoroughly sympathetic up to this point, we're suddenly asked to see Leonard as the architect of a self-fulfilling (and perpetual) prophesy of violence.
Technically speaking, the final scene of Memento is really the beginning, as Christopher Nolan starts at the end and works his way back to the start. Leonard suffers from anterograde amnesia, impairing his short-term memory and making it necessary for him to keep notes for himself in the form of tattoos and polaroid photos in order to remind himself what stage he's at in the search for the man who raped and murdered his wife. As the film progresses, supposed friends are revealed to be foes and when it appears that Leonard as finally found the attacker, a shadow of doubt is introduced for both Leonard and the viewer.
In the final scene, Leonard's suspicion that the man he's just killed is not the "John G." he's been looking for is confirmed as Teddy, the cop who has been helping him, reveals that he had already killed the real John G. a year previously. Teddy also reveals that Leonard's wife had survived the attack but died later, having been given an overdose of insulin while attempting to test Leonard's memory. The truth is too much for Leonard - "I can only make you remember the things you want to be true," Teddy tells him - and he takes a drastic step. Knowing that he'll forget the conversation they've just had and, indeed, the entire basis of his relationship with Teddy, Leonard writes a note for himself not to trust Teddy and another note regarding a new "clue," which is Teddy's license plate number. We already know, of course, how this will end up, but knowing that Leonard is not the passive victim that he believes himself to be completely changes how we view everything that came before.
Memento is undeniably a film with a gimmick, but what makes it work so well is that it doesn't play out in a "gimmicky" way and that's as true for the film as a whole as it is for the ending. It's a "gotcha" ending, but one that is utterly earned through the skill and craft of the story and its telling. The final scene is stunningly, beautifully effected and about as perfect as it can be.