Dolores makes her way in the world beyond Westworld
Season 1, Episode 10: “The Bicameral Mind”
Directed by Jonathan Nolan
Written by Lisa Joy & Nolan
* For a review of the penultimate Season 1 episode, “The Well-Tempered Clavier” – click here
* For a recap & review of the Season 2 premiere, “Journey Into Night” – click here
We begin as Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) is put together. Her skin is attached to the robotic skeleton, Bernard Lowe a.k.a Arnold (Jeffrey Wright) assembling the pieces. She comes online, not full yet physically but mentally put together as a whole. “Welcome to the world.”
In the present, she shaves The Man in Black (Ed Harris) with the blade of a knife. He continues on about the centre of the maze, how she brought him there once. For a long while the town was buried, after which Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) resurrected it. She still sees Arnold, too. And off she goes after him, Black behind her following.
William (Jimmi Simpson) continues on with former buddy Logan (Ben Barnes) tied up. He wants to find Dolores. He needs to find her. Now he’s looking for an army to help him: the Confederados and Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr) will do just fine.
Poor ole Teddy Flood (James Marsden), he wakes up after another day of being murdered only to start the whole Sweetwater experience over again. Except time starts slowing down. He sees corpses everywhere he turns, remnants of his former life. Then he sees Dolores in her blue dress, a wolf running past the dead. And then all returns to normal, as Teddy ends up in a quick draw with a stranger. Life carries on. But he’s intent on finding Dolores. Seems like all roads lead to her.
She finds Arnold kneeling in a pew of the church we see over and over. “I know where your maze is,” she tells him gladly. We switch back and forth between her with Arnold, and her with Black. She’s lost between the two spaces somewhere. At the church’s graveyard, she uncovers her own grave. A cross with her name on it. When she digs into the earth she finds a tin, and inside it is the maze’s pattern. Arnold tells her about the maze. It concerns consciousness. First, it started with a pyramid, then it became the maze: “Consciousness is not a journey upward, it‘s a journey inward.” Arnold hasn’t been pushing her towards hearing his voice. He’s been pushing her to hear her own. But how does Dolores give Black his answers when she hasn’t quite figured them out for herself?
What we see more of is how Arnold wanted the hosts to be, versus what Ford wanted for his vision. Then there’s Arnold and his plan: he wanted Dolores to kill all the other hosts to prevent Ford from doing his will with the park. Is that why Teddy killed everybody in that town? Did she enlist his help?
Well we also come to find Black has bought Westworld. “This place feels more real than the real world,” he says, mocking the place for all its lies. He wants to make the place very real; “one true thing.” But she believes in William, that he’ll come to find her.
Ole Will. He and Lawrence are scoping out the next move ahead. This is going to involve a good deal of violence. More with each episode now, each scene almost, we see William is turning his back on that former nice guy persona. He’s really getting into the swing of things. Out in the real world, Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) and Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) discuss her plans of nudging Dr. Ford away from Westworld. I just keep thinking everybody’s underestimating the old guy.
In other parts of the company, Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) is taking things up a notch. She’s making adjustments to park security, as well as her “friends” such as Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro) and Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal). Oh, this I can’t wait for!
Charlotte reveals to Ford the board has voted for his retirement. After he premieres his new narrative. Things are changing at Westworld.
The creepy lab tech who has sex with the hosts is tasked with taking care of Hector. This dude is a serious weirdo. He puts in some earbuds, ready to rock. Now you know something bad’s about to happen. One tech has to slip his hands in Armistice’s mouth, which gets him a digit bitten off. Meanwhile, rapey tech is greasing up for a session with Hector, and the other guy gets his finger fed to him. No longer can the techs contain the hosts. More people are about to die. “They don‘t look like gods,” says Armistice of the real people when Maeve arrives to round them up. The hosts then finds who revised them to be able to wake from their sleep manually: Arnold, or so it seems. It’s a lot of fun to see the humans frightened of the technology of whom they assumed to be masters.
Dolores takes a bad beating from The Man in Black, as Flood and William are both headed for her. Who’ll get there first? Right now, anybody would do. Or, can William actually find her? Black knows about William, and where his path actually took him. Is he really The Man in Black? IS HE? TELL US WESTWORLD! You’re sure teasing us well. I can dig it.
We see William, becoming more violent as time passes. Getting a taste for murder. Sure wouldn’t surprise me at this point if he and Black were one and the same. Then, we finally get to see him pick up that black hat. After so much speculation, here we are at a definitive identity. We watch as William went back to Sweetwater, searching for Dolores, as he couldn’t stop thinking of her for a second. And she didn’t remember a thing, not like the love that existed in him. He saw it for what it was: all a game.
And now Dolores sees nobody is coming for her. Not like she thought. Black wants to go further, to find what lies at the centre of the maze. Even better? Dolores needs no man, no one to save her. She has discovered herself. She’s heard her own voice, like Arnold hoped. Everything has changed. When Dolores takes a knife to the gut, she does get a little help from none other than Teddy; the one man in her life that won’t ever change.
Dolores: “Time undoes even the mightiest of creatures. Just look what it‘s done to you.”
Outside in the Westworld facilities, Maeve and her band of merry hosts head for the basement, filled to the brim with inactive robots. Also where Arnold a.k.a Bernie lies in a pool of his own blood. And now he’s being brought back online, with intense purpose.
On the plains of Sweetwater, Ford and William meet. The doctor says there is nothing at the centre of the maze, not for the guests. It’s just a game. William needs more, to validate himself and his life’s meaning. “This is your petty little kingdom, Robert.”
What exactly will Ford’s newest narrative be? I feel like everyone’s in for a damn big surprise.
Someone altered Maeve’s storyline. She’s been tasked by somebody to escape. “These are my decisions, no one else‘s,” she claims. Someone has been controlling her. But WHO? WHO? Nevertheless, the hosts are rising up, they’re manipulating people and the system. Westworld’s soon going to have major trouble on their hands.
Dolores tells Teddy about being trapped in their world, forcibly, made to feel and think everything, made to do what their makers want. Then she dies in his arms. One of many deaths she’s already experienced, and surely will experience again. Unless the uprising changes all that for good.
Then we pause a moment. It’s all part of the new narrative “Journey Into Night” by Ford. A new beginning, for him, for the park. Charlotte, Lee, they all assume this is the end for Dr. Ford. I don’t see it. There’s something left up his sleeve. He has Teddy taken off to be cleaned up, but Dolores, she’s sent to the “old field lab.”
And just as the techs of Westworld track down their problems, the place locks tight. Security measures in full force. Maeve, Armistice, Hector, they head up to the higher floors. Their plan all but in full action. Men with guns show up, and that’s only the beginning of what’s sure to be a wild fight. With real guns in hand, there’s no telling what the hosts can accomplish. And they’re loving it. At a certain point Armistice stays behind to let the others go ahead, taking on armed men likely to gun her down. Hector gets left as well, as Maeve prefers to go it alone.
Oh, these violent delights indeed have violent ends.
Hector (to Armistice): “Die well.”
In the lab Ford takes care of Dolores. He talks about her love of painting; Arnold encouraged it with a painting of “The Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo on the wall of the lab. Then Ford introduces the second coming of Arnold in Bernard. This rocks her world. We see a little more on Arnold, his maze. We see more of Ford and his argument with Arnold about the park, Arnold’s loading of the Wyatt narrative. So much to absorb, but incredibly written. This leads to Dolores killing Bernie a.k.a Arnold, and Teddy, as well. Before putting a gun to her own head. This was Arnold’s plan, although it didn’t work. The park still opened. Life went on. Fitting how Ford quotes Oppenheimer in this scene, worth mention.
Arnold: “The stakes must be real. Irreversible.”
Maeve goes on ahead, further into the real world. She further discovers her daughter is alive, in the park, of course. And out she goes, into the world of human beings, walking amongst them unknown. She boards a train and leaves Westworld, headed anywhere. Or will the desire to be with her daughter change that?
We find out more about Ford. He isn’t all bad. He encourages the hosts, particularly Dolores and Arnold/Bernie, to discover themselves. To escape. And then he too leaves the fake world behind. His narrative is the narrative he’s created to set the hosts free.
Dolores has discovered the voice inside herself, the guide. She is at the centre of the maze: consciousness, personhood, humanity. “Who I must become.” Who every host must become.
In the last moments, those numerous hosts from the basement of discarded people encroach on the people listening to Ford speak, coming out of the darkness. And in front of the crowd, Dolores shoots Dr. Ford in the head. Even William in his tux takes a bullet. And the hosts start their massacre of the onlooking crowd with their drinks and their fancy finger foods.
Thus ends the first season of an amazing series.
In a scene after the credits we watch Armistice cut her own arm off then attack a group of soldiers. Bad ass.
Wow! I saw a lot of these things building, but holy shit. This was an impressive finale that held me from moment one. I really need Season 2 already. The story can lead so many places. What will Westworld become at the mercy of the hosts? Will we see them lead an army out of the park, or will they stake a claim for their world as their own? We’ll just have to wait and see.
Season 1, Episode 4: “Dissonance Theory”
Directed by Vincenzo Natali (Splice, Cube)
Written by Ed Brubaker & Jonathan Nolan
* For a review of the previous episode, “The Stray” – click here
* For a review of the next episode, “Contrapasso” – click here
Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) is tinkering away at Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), as usual. She tells him that losing everyone she’s loved “hurts so badly.” She speaks of grief. As if she knows the feeling. Like instead of being a robot, she’s become human in her emotion. But it’s all a “scripted dialogue.”
Is the machinery at Westworld becoming more sentient than it ought to? One thing’s for sure: Dolores believes “there may be something wrong with this world,” like an evil lurks below it all. Then Lowe tells Dolores of a game called The Maze. He wants her to play. Apparently if she can play it and succeed, she may also find freedom.
And what exactly is the greater purpose of Westworld’s grand illusion? We know there are… levels. However, what does that mean, exactly?
When Dolores wakes up on the plains of Sweetwater she’s with William (Jimmi Simpson), who last whisked her away from trouble in the previous episode. Back at the saloon, Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) and Clementine Pennyfeather (Angela Sarafyan) chat while The Cure’s “A Forest” plays on the player piano. Really dig the song choices, especially how the fit in anachronistically with the Western setting. All of a sudden Maeve’s world goes funny. She sees blood all over Clementine. Then she’s on the floor. A man fires his gun into people around the saloon, over and over. The sick fantasy of a player enacted on the helpless hosts. Just another day in Sweetwater. Robot life. Afterwards, in come the cleanup team to get things sorted for the next team of players visiting the park.
Then Maeve snaps back. Everything is fine. Clementine’s still yammering on. Ah, the flashbacks of a previous day, a death some time before. But it’s set Maeve off and nothing is the same as it was before. She continually flashes back and forth between the present and those awful memories. So, she draws a picture of a man in a Hazmat-like suit. Before finding a bunch of similar drawings beneath a floorboard in her bedroom.
Out in the lab, Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward) is running Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) over the violent malfunction of the stray from last episode. The one who smashed its own head in with a rock. Bernard drops by to check in. But it seems Theresa is taking over, sick of how things are going lately. Like any right-minded person, Elsie’s worried this problem is spreading like an infection through the hosts. And she airs those grievances to Bernard. He’s lost, though. Lost in the memory of his own loss, that of his boy. He is blinded by love and science at once and I don’t think he’s the best judge of who’s doing what right at the moment.
William wants to take Dolores back to Sweetwater, while his buddy Logan (Ben Barnes) would rather kill her off. It’s only a game, right? In other parts of the world, The Man in Black (Ed Harris) is trying to figure out “what this all means” and how the game is supposed to end. Again: what exactly is the whole purpose, the deeper meaning to everything? Well, The Man in Black and his hostage Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.) run into Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) and her gang. He proceeds to kill a few of them, ingratiating himself to her company.
Poor Dolores, she looks adrift every time we see her. She wanders around in another little town. She meets a girl who draws a maze, like the one from the scalp we’ve seen, in the sand and then disappears. When Dolores is confronted by a man things get eerie. But William interrupts and everything goes back to normal. At least for the time being. Either way, Dolores is wary of her world more and more. “Sometimes I feel like something‘s calling me, telling me there‘s a place for me somewhere beyond this,” she tells William.
Then she fades out. The moon becomes a light above her. She’s on the ground, corpse-like. Men in Hazmat-style suits are around her. And just as quickly William whisks her around in his arms, frightening her. Reality – whatever reality she exists in, I guess – is slipping.
We start to hear The Man in Black talk about Arnold. You remember him, right? The old partner of Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). Once more, The Man in Black takes out that bloody scalp he procured in the first episode. Now he’s hoping to get help from Armistice in order to enact the next portion of his plan. Deliciously devilish. I still don’t think he’s an older version of William. I don’t see this as happening in two different eras. Could still find a surprise there, but I just can’t see that. Moreover, with the little trickles of information concerning Arnold, I feel like Dr. Ford has skeletons in his closet, and the Bad Dude in Black just may rip a few of those out into the daylight just yet. We do get a clue about Ed Harris’ character when another visitor at the park mentions his “foundation.” Interesting stuff.
Armistice, The Man in Black, Lawrence, their crew, they head to a nearby prison. Black is tossed in alongside Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro), as the police take Lawrence to the firing squad. Black plans on breaking Hector out. Outside, Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) approves some pyrotechnics. Oh, baby – the cell door gets blown open. So does one cop’s face, having taken a cigar off Black not expecting it to explode in his face. Literally. For the second time, The Man in Black saves Lawrence from an execution: “Mo–therrr–fucker,” he exclaims upon rescue.
So what’s the next step for ole Black? Armistice tells him about Wyatt, one of the men who killed everybody in her town when she was younger. Maybe there’s another hunt together in their future.
More problems for Maeve. She sees a little girl from a Native American tribe drop a wooden toy. It’s shaped just like one of the suited men from her visions. Part of “their religion,” a man from town says.
Outside, Bernard and Theresa talk about Westworld troubles. She has to meet with Dr. Ford because of his recent, troubling behaviour. The next morning she meets the eccentric man, he’s out watching equipment clearing out new space in the desert. All a part of his latest, massive narrative. Theresa worries it’ll take much longer than projected, and that it won’t do his “legacy” right. For his part, Ford believes she doesn’t exactly like being there at Westworld. She doesn’t particularly. Ford speaks of Arnold and his preference of the hosts over real people. He likewise remembers that Arnold went crazy. There are slight and plain warnings from the doctor: “Please, don‘t get in my way.”
On their adventure, Logan and William head into a gang’s hideout and start blasting. A huge gunfight erupts, as Logan has a laugh and William tries getting into it. Just like a damn video game come alive!
The Man in Black and Lawrence come across a mutilated body: Teddy Flood (James Marsden). He is in terrifying shape. All the fellas can do for him is cut him down.
Into Sweetwater rides Hector and Armistice. They unload their weapons and then their bullets into anybody nearby. Like it always is during this storyline. Into the saloon goes Hector until Maeve pulls a gun on him. Upstairs, she questions him about the drawings of the men in the Hazmat suits. “Native lore,” he tells her. She also tells him about having been shot. She wants to see if there’s anything inside her as evidence. When he won’t cut into her, Maeve does it herself. But Hector, he puts his hand in the wound to do some searching. Sure enough there is lead inside her belly.
“What does this mean?” Hector asks.
“That I‘m not crazy,” she replies. “And that none of this matters.” Right after, men burst through the door to gun Hector down.
What a solid episode. The writing is insane! I love it. Such wonderful concepts and a lot of different angles, different characters. So many things happening.
Next episode is titled “Contrapasso” – will we learn more of Dr. Ford and his old pal Arnold?
Season 1, Episode 2: “Chestnut”
Directed by Richard J. Lewis
Written by Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy
* For a review of the premiere, “The Original” – click here
* For a review of the next episode, “The Stray” – click here
Poor old Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood). A voice tells her to wake up, asking: “Do you remember?”
Cut to William (Jimmi Simpson) on a futuristic-looking train. A friend of his makes a quip about his sister having rode her “share of cowboys” while at the resort. So William is headed for a nice vacation stay. Or will it be? A guide brings William through to get ready for his adventure. You can tell already that he’s got a slight problem with the place.
Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward) and Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) talk about Dolores’ father having an “existential crisis” and how they’re going to fix it. She wants to make sure this episode won’t spread to other robots. That it may be infectious, as it were.
Well, Dolores, she keeps on keeping on. Yet all of a sudden that voice again – “Remember” – and she stops. Dolores sees a vision of people read in the streets, everywhere, screams in the distance. A wolf runs through the middle of the road. Dolores once again quotes her father, and Shakespeare to a baffled Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton). Uh oh. Is that the phrase which triggers the illness in the hosts?
“These violent delights have violent ends.” (Romeo & Juliet)
Inside Westworld, William and his buddy Logan (Ben Barnes) start experiencing the immersive thrills. It seems like Logan’s got lots of love for the place. He believes the resort reveals your true self. So, who is William exactly?
On a ranch, a man named Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.) is about to be hanged. Up turns The Man in Black (Ed Harris). He seems to not like the idea of a hanging today. A gunfight breaks out, naturally, and you know who comes out on top of that one. Bodies lay everywhere at his feet; is he the cause of all those bodies that Dolores saw? For now, The Man in Black tells Lawrence he’s going to help him discover the “deepest level of this game.” Although the bad dude enjoys killing, he’s there for something far bigger than murder.
Another great player piano cover: Radiohead’s “No Surprises” rolls on in the background. Maeve runs her sweet game on a client, telling tales of romantic intrigue. Then, the host in her glitches. She remembers a violent scene of Native Americans attacking people, blood, scalping. Quickly, the engineers have Maeve pulled out, callously talking about her like there’s nothing human inside. There is – there has to be – and still, they’re robots.
Bernard and Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) talk about Dolores’ father and his glitch. Lowe believes something else must’ve gone wrong other than him looking at that picture. The doctor tries assuaging his fears. A little cryptically. He also relays the idea that they essentially dabble in witchcraft. That if they did these things hundreds of years ago, they’d be burned at the stake.
Finally arriving in town, Logan and William see the sights, as the latter gets acquainted with things in Sweetwater. They briefly encounter Clementine Pennyfeather (Angela Sarafyan), a drunk, and Logan explains how it’s all part of the game. Every host has an adventure or story to sell you.
Out for a bit of maintenance, Dolores speaks with Lowe. He analyses her, asking specific questions to see if there’s been any tampering. He keeps telling her that they ought to keep their little chats between them. “Have you done something wrong?” Dolores asks. Lowe swiftly erases their conversation on the log and ends their conversation. Hmm.
Maeve is back in business, no glitches or problems like before. She’s up and running just fine. Except Clementine, she also complains about having bad dreams, trouble sleeping. The head mistress makes sure Clementine goes back to work, but Maeve keeps on having those visions. To the point Teddy Flood (James Marsden) notices nearby. Now it looks as if Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) and his team outside have marked Maeve for decommissioning. That’s really sad.
Meanwhile, Lowe chats with Theresa Cullen (Sides Babett Knudsen) about the goings on at the company. She’s had an especially rough day. They get on about updates, upcoming events. He says things are “back to normal” yet I’m not so sure. Even worse, Theresa refers to their customers as coming in to “rape and pillage.” Yikes. Know your market, I guess.
During dinner that evening William gets a visit from the drunk he’d helped in the street earlier. Logan gets pissed off, no time for fucking around with their game, and puts a fork into the old guy’s hand. The sight of the blood alone is enough to turn William off from it all. Logan’s more interested in having some weird sex with the host prostitutes. William isn’t so thrilled about all that, he has a lady at home.
Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) is in the workshop getting a new narrative ready. He’s a bit of a psycho, too. Uptight and genius-like. Cullen tries to make sure he’s on budget, though it seems he likes doing things his own way. Whatever works.
We find out that Dr. Ford of course has his own little elevator into the Westworld interior. He heads through the desert and comes across a young boy, one who could almost be him years and years ago. They head off for a walk together.
Back to The Man in Black, stringing Lawrence along through the desert. He’s brought him to a little Mexican cantina. Turns out Lawrence’s family is there, a wife and a daughter. “The real world‘s just chaos, an accident. But in here every detail adds up to something,” The Man in Black explains. He wants to find the entrance to “the maze.” That labyrinth from the scalp tattoo. Soon, the violence erupts. Outside we see Stubbs make a remark about The Man in Black getting whatever he wants. Afterwards, the bad, bad dude takes out a gang of Mexican men hoping to help Lawrence. No such luck. Things get a lot worse for Lawrence before they get any better. And now se know that The Man in Black is in this trip for the long run.
Side note: Ed Harris is a god damn bad ass, which I knew before, but GOOD LORD! Westworld is bringing out his quality acting, as well as his nasty nature. Dig it.
The Man in Black: “When you‘re suffering, that‘s when you‘re most real.”
Out on the desert plain, Ford and the boy come across a rattlesnake. The doctor stops it in mid movement, commanding its movements. Control over every aspect of his created world. In the distance is an odd structure with a cross on it. A church? Or something far different?
Lowe heads back to his futuristic, cosy little apartment. Awhile later Cullen comes to his door to apologise for their bit of an argument. Oh, and they’re lovers. I actually hadn’t seen that coming already. They don’t do much talking, more lying in bed and such.
In the maintenance room, Elsie takes a look at Maeve. She works on the madame’s qualities, to make her more emotionally perceptive. We find out that the hosts are given “the concept of dreams,” which often comes in the form of nightmares. Elsie believes she’s got Maeve fixed up. Back to the whorehouse floor with her! A tragic life. She recites her lines, this time with more emotion than hardness. Everything in its right place. She winds up talking to Teddy along the bar, who sees right through her act. Oh, the life of the hosts. Teddy then gets murdered at the bar viciously: “Now that‘s a fuckin‘ vacation,” yells the guest.
This takes Maeve back to memories, dreams of another life. She sees herself on a farm with a little girl, her daughter. They run and play, as if they were actually happy. Only those moments bleed into those of the Native Americans attacking, nearly scalping her. A terrifying massacre, ending with The Man in Black walking through her door, impervious to her gun’s bullets. She wakes before any further bloodshed.
Some surgeons work on Maeve’s inside parts, removing bad bits. Except she comes to while being worked on, pulling a blade on the men. They try calming her back onto the table. Not good enough. She escapes into the darkened halls of the Westworld facility, trying to find somewhere to go. She sees other hosts being taken apart, hosed down. It’s too much for her. The surgeons catch up and put her into sleep mode. But will any damage linger? Maybe they’ll just take her out of commission altogether now.
In the night Dolores wakes. She goes outside and finds a gun hidden in the dirt. What will she do with it?
Inside the facility, Lee is unveiling his latest narrative – the “apex” of the park’s attractions. He’s a very confident man. His new program is called Odyssey on Red River, an immersive experience to help people understand themselves better through a new Wild West journey. But Dr. Ford doesn’t believe it’s any good. He knows the true idea of the park, and that Lee’s narrative only reveals his personality, nothing about the guests.
So into the desert go Ford and Lowe. The doctor has something brewing – “something quite original” – and it has to do with that structure out there, with the cross on top. Almost looks like an old oil well structure combined with a church. Either way, it looks intriguing. And what does Dr. Ford have up his sleeve?
Loved this episode! Amazing follow-up to the premiere. Next is “The Stray” – really glad HBO served this up early before the Presidential Debate on Sunday. A true treat for us fans that were going to perish before then.
Memento. 2000. Directed & Written by Christopher Nolan; based on the short story “Memento Mori” by Jonathan Nolan.
Starring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Russ Fega, Jorja Fox, Stephen Tobolowsky, Harriet Sansom Harris, Thomas Lennon, & Callum Keith Rennie. Newmarket Capital Group/Team Todd/I Remember Productions.
Rated 14A. 113 minutes.
Christopher Nolan has moved on to bigger blockbuster-type movies. Once his reiteration of the classic Batman character hit theatres, nothing was ever the same for his career. Much as I’m a fan of his Batman trilogy, even a big Batman fan before him, the Nolan I prefer most is the one who did Following, remade Insomnia, and of course the one responsible for this cinematic gem, Memento.
Right at the turn of the 21st century, Nolan gave us an interesting mystery film that defies the expectations of the genre. It’s a thriller that works backward through the chronological order, instead of forward, and in a way is anticlimactic. However, for all its different techniques the movie never feels too much like a try-hard indie, hoping to break the mould with a script that’s beyond quirky. There’s every bit of the independent film spirit within this piece of work. Although, Nolan never goes for the cheap thrill. This is a cerebral thriller, stained with blood and mystery and the shattered frame of a brain’s memories. Guy Pearce puts in a whopping performance in a tough role that effectively put him up there with the best actors of his generation. Every scene is interesting because it not only looks good, they all force you to think forward, backward, every which way. The structure of the movie lends a hand to the plot, the focus on memories and a backward sequence of trying to retrace one’s steps (literally one’s memories). A powerful revenge story that’s fuelled by heart, though ultimately a story that never resolves itself fully. And that’s part of the point, as we take the journey with the main character Leonard (Pearce) discovering there’s no way to fully resolve his situation. At the bottom of it all, there’s the question of revenge itself, and if it would make a difference to Leonard.
While Leonard has no short term memory because of an attack on him and his wife, precipitating his seeking revenge, this is a way for Nolan to ask us: is revenge worth it, even if you could remember?
Part of Memento‘s interesting charm overall is the way Nolan challenges how we watch a film. In turn, this calls to mind how Leonard himself recalls memory. We come to like he does in the midst of his day, in places where he doesn’t exactly remember (unless they’re marked on one of his cue cards or tattooed on his body). The writing, the scenes and how they’re edited into one another like stitching, this all initiates us into the experience of Leonard and his memory issues.
So while it may feel like a gimmick to some Nolan employs the backward chronological order for a specific purpose, to replicate those ideas of memory while simultaneously playing with the format of film itself, as well as how the audience watches one. The clerk at the motel (played by the excellent Mark Boone Junior) says it best, that feeling like you’re waking up everyday – how Leonard describes his condition – must have everything feel backwards, literally describing the film and its structure: Leonard thinks he wants to do something, but he’s not sure about what he’s just done. The writing is truly genius. If you don’t admire Nolan’s filmmaking, another aspect in which he excels generally, how can you not find his writing compelling? This screenplay speaks volumes. At first there feels like an intricate-style, labyrinthine weaving to the plot. And to a degree there is. Yet the way Nolan presents it makes the difficulty wear off. Soon you find yourself along with Leonard for the ride, full stop. Something I dig is the fact that this backward order of scenes kind of prevents us from trying to think ahead, it takes away that element of jumping past the story and worrying more about “whodunit” than any of the best parts about the plot, the film as a final product, so on.A moment I love is the first real flashback we get from Leonard, concerning his wife. Because it starts out while he’s in the diner, then when he closes his eyes the sound design takes all that noise out – the other patrons, dishes clinking together, food frying, et cetera – and we fall inside his head with him. The cinematography throughout the entire film is spectacular. In this scene, there’s a beautiful, dreamy quality to the memories, the raw, genuine stuff Leonard can remember. This distinctly divides parts of the movie, as we get this nice sort of washed out look to the regular parts of the present, a sparkling beauty to the memories of his wife, a darkness to the night of her death, and then there are the black-and-white flashbacks to other portions of Leonard’s life, including his old job, Sammy (Stephen Tobolowsky), his conversation on the telephone in the motel room. Nolan seamlessly connects these looks to make a whole, a palette that stretches out over just a little under two solid hours. It’s a rich, interesting tapestry that will captivate any curious audience. The directorial choices from Nolan are what make his screenplay work, proving he’s a solid writer as much as he is a director.
The plot is what makes this movie so unique, yes. Pearce is the soul which drives the story. His voice-over narration is spot on. Moreover, he constantly embodies Leonard, keeping us confused along with him until the pieces fall together. The way Pearce plays Leonard makes us feel for him. At times, we might even get a bit frustrated; both for him and with him. In the more frantic moments Pearce truly wrings out the empathetic qualities, pleading with us to feel his pain, and most times it takes very few pleads. He makes Leonard charming, to the point, he’s an odd man due to his condition yet there is a friendly feel to him. This single performance is why I’ve kept an interest in Pearce, no matter the role he takes. A once in a lifetime performance in a strange, innovative bit of mystery cinema.
This is one of the first great movies of the 2000s, right as the new century came about. Memento takes you by the hand, down a bumpy road filled with unreliable characters, an unreliable narrator, and throws you down the corridor of revenge on a trail of broken memories. There aren’t any better films that relay the feeling of memory. Above all, Nolan’s writing and directing – aided by the incredible cinematography of Wally Pfister – takes us through the process of what it’s like to rebuild memory, to have to out of necessity for the revenge of a terrible event. Along the way we spend time with Leonard, who’s most certainly a classic film character that will go down with the greats, and Pearce flesh him out well to the point we’re caught up intricately with his dilemma right to the bitter end. Again, I do love Nolan’s later work – The Prestige is one of my favourites out of his catalogue – yet I can’t help returning to his earliest efforts, such as this treat. Over any plot or character developments, Memento gives us a masterclass in form, allowing the cinematic techniques Nolan brings to the screen to play the lead character even above Pearce. Don’t mistake it: this is not a movie, it’s a defining experience of film.