Appreciating Christopher Nolan: Memento & Insomnia

Image retrieved from IMDb

Many people have one or two directors that they follow and that they will see any movie from. Any time that it’s announced that director will be coming out with a new film, they are immediately on board, no matter what it’s about. For me, that director is Christopher Nolan. Since 2000, Nolan has directed nine films, eight of which are on my top fifteen or twenty favorite movies of all-time list.

I wanted to examine what exactly it is that makes Nolan movies so special, so I’ve been going back and re-watching them. I’ve seen them all multiple times and have put intentional distance between my last viewings so I can have a fresh perspective on them.

In this post, I’ll take a look at Memento and Insomnia. I’m grouping these two together firstly because they’re two of his less mainstream movies. They’re also his two grittiest movies and his only R-rated films. I think he may have moved away from this style once his movies became more popular and mainstream, but that’s not a bad thing at all.

These two movies are excellent but underappreciated. When people talk about Christopher Nolan movies, you’ll hear Memento mentioned because it’s what put him on the map, but Insomnia is hardly ever talked about. But it should be.

Before I get into these movies, I want to issue a SPOILER ALERT, even though they were both released 16-18 years ago.

Memento (2000) 

I watched this movie for the third time recently. As I was watching it, I thought to myself, “Wow. This just may be Nolan’s best movie.” The way that its plot is presented is unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. It follows the main character Leonard as he tries to both find the man who killed his wife and deal with his short term memory loss. It alternates between scenes in color and in black and white. Each scene in color comes before the previous one. So Nolan, in a way, is presenting events backwards. But the black and white scenes are presented chronologically. It’s genius storytelling, really, and something that very likely could only be achieved through film.

Presenting the story this way is so effective because it lets the audience discover things about the plot at the same time as Leonard. It keeps us on our toes. It’s the ultimate suspense movie with a twist that we weren’t expecting about every ten minutes. And the biggest one comes at the end. We get taken on this journey with a man with whom we have begun to empathize because of what’s happened to him. Yet, that all just gets flipped on its head in the very last scene.

This is what makes Memento truly great. You have no idea what to expect from the opening credits to the closing credits. It does something that not a lot of Nolan movies do: it has opening credits. But it utilizes them very effectively. It doesn’t just show a bunch of scenery while the names appear. Instead, it starts with black and then moves on to one of Leonard’s Polaroids. Except the picture is disappearing instead of getting clearer – it’s going backwards. Nolan is showing the audience that he is going to be presenting his story backwards. We just don’t realize it yet. It’s excellent foreshadowing.

With all of Nolan’s huge movies that have come out in the last ten years or so, Memento may very well be his most underappreciated. You can’t understand the full story until the very last scene. And even then, you probably won’t understand the whole thing. I’ve seen it three times and I’m still putting more things together every time I watch it. And I expect that will continue for a long time, each time I re-watch this masterpiece of a film.

Insomnia (2002)

This was probably the only Nolan movie I didn’t know about for a while, which is surprising because of its star power alone. It stars three Oscar winners in Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank. It’s also similar to Memento in that it’s gritty and even pretty dark – the whole plot is about a police detective trying to solve the murder of a teenage girl, so it goes to some dark places. It also has opening credits that are used effectively – they foreshadow plot points that come up at the end of the movie. It’s interesting to see how well Nolan utilizes these things in a movie, yet he starts to shy away from them as his career progressed.

But Insomnia doesn’t feel like a Christopher Nolan movie the way that others do. His movies play with time in relation to the plot a lot, yet this one is straightforward and chronological. It does have flashback scenes, but they’re not really utilized in any special or unique way.

One of the things Insomnia does have going for it is the acting. Pacino and Swank are excellent as the seasoned and new detectives, respectively, and Robin Williams’ surprising reveal as the killer is extremely effective and unexpected. It reminds me of Se7en in that the killer, portrayed by a big name actor, isn’t revealed until at least the second half of the movie. And then to find that it was Williams, whose presence in a movie usually either evokes a lighthearted, humorous, or comforting tone, just adds to the overall sense of unease and uncomfortableness that is present the whole way through.

The real Nolan trademark that is present in Insomnia is its cerebral aspect. At the center of the plot is Pacino trying to come to terms with the things he’s done and not being able to sleep. The story is almost a character study on how he deals with these extreme circumstances. It’s the same with MementoInception, and a number of other Nolan movies. He’s great at doing this and he finds new ways to look into a character with each subsequent film that he makes.

Chris Nolan is a master of playing with time and characters in his movies. Memento and Insomnia are his starting points for becoming the visionary, original, and popular director that he is today.

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