The Sting (1973) ****
Directed by George Roy Hill
Memento (2001) ****
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Why review these two iconic films together? Because there’s really not a whole that can be said about their plots without dampening both films’ entertainment values. I am going to review both films, but in doing so, I plan to avoid spoiling either films’ gimmicks. Both The Sting and Memento manipulate their audiences to the utmost extreme, and often I hate films that do so; however, I enjoyed both immensely. Films as well executed as these two earn our investment, so when the credits roll, we embrace the roller coaster ride we’ve just experienced.
On the other hand, I didn’t enjoy either film as much as I hoped I would. On imdb.com’s list of the top 250 films rated by website visitors, Memento sits in 28th place right below Sunset Blvd. and above (gasp) Citizen Kane! A little less shocking is The Sting’s ranking at number 94 right below Full Metal Jacket and right above Touch of Evil, neither film I’ve seen but both films I look forward to checking out soon. People my age and younger have really championed Memento more than any other film except maybe Fight Club. The Sting is clearly one of the most beloved films of all time, taking the Oscar for Best Picture in 1974. It’s clear why audiences fell in love with The Sting three decades ago. Everyone involved seems like they had an absolute blast making the film, and their joy is undeniably infectious. Yet, the film deserves to be placed in the second tier of great films, not anywhere near films like Sunset Blvd. or Citizen Kane. I guess I was hoping for a movie that might place high on my list of the greatest films I’ve ever seen. The Sting falls way short of Pleasantville, which is the film that now occupies the number 100 spot on that list.
In one paragraph, I’m going to say what I can about both films’ plots. Memento: Guy Pierce plays Leonard, a man who suffers from a short-term memory disorder which prevents him from holding onto any recollections at all of persons or events that he experiences. He knows who he is and everything about himself from before a traumatic event—one which sets him off on a vengeful lifelong mission. He can meet people time after time and still not remember anything about them or even the fact that he’s met them at all. Therefore, to live his life and to forward his mission, he uses an ultra structured system of notes, Polaroid pictures and tattoos to provide him with all the information he needs to get himself on track once he reverts back to complete ignorance over and over again. The Sting: Robert Redford plays Johnny Hooker, a two-bit con artist who decides to seek out a big time crook named Henry Gondorff, played spectacularly by the late Paul Newman, in order to steal millions from a ruthless Chicago crime boss named Doyle Lonnegan, played by Jaws’ Robert Shaw who dons the most pathetic Irish accent I’ve ever heard—note: I’ve never seen Tom Cruise in Far and Away so Shaw may have some competition for that title someday. Eventually, Johnny’s loyalties are stretched thin as the caper unfolds, and that’s all I’ll say about that.
I left out Memento’s main gimmick. The film narrative unfolds backward in time. Clever, huh? Well, I personally wasn’t blown away by this supposedly innovative way of telling a story. Though I can’t think of any particular examples from before Memento’s release in 2001, I can say that this narrative trick feels like it belongs on a weekly television crime procedural such as CSI or Without a Trace. There’s an episode of CSI that involves four dead bodies in a morgue that sit up and talk to each other, unraveling details about a crime which resulted in all four deaths. It’s not until the end when we learn which of the four murdered the other three. The talking corpses weren’t meant to be taken literally, but I personally found the whole thing a bit too whimsical for its own good. Not every episode of the show is so far out there—it’s only an occasional thing. The shtick in Memento to move backwards in chronology would feel right at home on CSI as one of these special episodes.
When I was a little kid, and even now to an extent, I sometimes brainstorm what I think might be cool, clever movie ideas that supposedly haven’t been done before. For example, I think it would be awesome for a movie to have someone find a time machine and use it to warn the government about 9/11 in order to prevent it from happening. Of course, if you think realistically about this mission, wouldn’t the government have to conclude that the man himself must have ties to terrorists if he knows about a plot to attack
Cool idea, huh? No? Well, either way, my mind sometimes wanders, and I’m sure that at some point before I was 20 in 2001, I brainstormed the idea that it would be great if a film could play out in reverse. I believe that it’s possible for a creative seven year old to come up with this gimmick on his own, and as such, I’m not all that impressed with Christopher Nolan’s so-called innovative narrative structure.
I am, however, awed by Memento’s execution. Much of the film’s success ought to be credited to Guy Pierce, an actor I really like mostly because he’s always refreshingly understated in the roles I’ve seen. He’s in just about every moment of Memento, and though the film is all about him, you never once feel like Pierce had visions of Oscar in his sight as he performed his part. The same is true about his work in L.A. Confidential. He’s in more scenes than Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger, and yet, he seemingly reigns in his performance in order to let those three really shine. As such, there’s not one scene in the entire film where you feel like there’s any competition from Pierce to steal the glory for himself. In Memento and L.A. Confidential, his humility adds a layer of success.
I saw the ending to both films coming from a mile away, and I wish I could elaborate more on why, but I don’t want to ruin either film by doing so. All I will say is that any film that doesn’t follow conventional rules can’t be trusted, and as such, I’m always questioning character motivation. Unlike a film like The Sixth Sense, which surprises us because it seems like any old ghost story until its conclusion, The Sting and Memento let us know early on that twists and turns are possible because of both films’ ambitions to wow their audiences. When I know that there’s a good chance that a movie is going to try and wow me, I’m usually never wowed. It’s like a balloon popping. If I know it’s going to happen, I might not be as startled as I would be had I not known that there were any balloons in the room at all. Still, The Sting and Memento, while not ultimately impressive in their cleverness, absolutely deliver great characters in satisfying crime stories where nobody, and I mean NOBODY, can be trusted.
(Label Note: EW Top 100 of the Last 25 Years (Memento), Best Picture Oscar Nominee (The Sting))