For fun, start at the last paragraph and read each in reverse order!
Memento was the first movie I have seen with writer/director Christopher Nolan. I enjoy it for many different reasons; the performances were great, the concept sound, and of course the revolutionary technique of changing the scene order in a big budget Hollywood movie. While I’m sure the latter is reason alone for it rocketing to the top of many peoples top 10 lists, I look at it from a different angle, it’s entrance and exit.
Every story needs a beginning, middle, and end. The three act structure; set up, conflict, resolution. Many many stories don’t follow this hierarchy, which is fine, they don’t need to. But there is a reason this structure has existed for thousands of years. Very few good stories achieve any sort of success breaking this mold. I’m not saying it can’t be done, or shouldn’t be attempted. Much like anything in life there are rules, and they’re their for a reason. Rules in music, martial arts, math, etc. I think using the word rules sets a false expectation of absolutes; there are none.
Instead of rules they should be viewed more so as templates and guidelines. Once the structure is learned, its easier to see when, where, and how to break it. Music for example does this constantly. Many hit songs are just simple beats, arpeggios, and chords. There are few who break the mold because it is difficult to do so. In the case of Memento though, it follows it to a T. It’s expertly crafted to flow from beginning to end. The characters actions and motivation drive them to a logical conclusion. Any good story should have a predictable ending. I don’t mean it needs to be cliche or obvious though. Upon repeat viewings once you’re through or mostly through act one, the ending should be clearly seen as a logical end. If not, it’s either poorly written (breaking the mold) or some deus ex machina (god in the machine) was used.
Memento knows what it is from beginning to end. The story flows and strictly follows the three act structure, meaning it was meticulously plotted and crafted from beginning to end. I don’t know at what point it was decided to order the scenes in reverse, but that was the easiest part of the endeavor. The DVD includes an option to watch the scenes in a linear fashion. Watching it in linear order makes it an interesting movie, watching it in reverse commands the audiences attention, making them constant ask how did we get here.
This creates a good litmus test for any movie (or story really). Watch it in reverse order. Take your favorite movie, or even one you’ve never scene before, and watch each scene in reverse (if you have the time to actually do this please let me know so I can slap you). The movie should still hold up and have an easily followable thread in either direction. Memento strictly follows the established template, allowing it to easily be enjoyable, from front to back.
If you read this in reverse, let me know how that worked out for in the comments below or @thecredhulk on twitter.