“That was the risk I was running”: the movie script Christopher Nolan admitted was “very cold”

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He might be one of the biggest, most bankable, and most successful directors Hollywood has at its disposal, but Christopher Nolan hasn’t been completely impervious to criticism throughout a career that’s well on its way to going down in the history books as among the finest ever.

Not that there are a huge number of flaws in his game, but many have pointed to the perceived emotional coldness, needless over-complication, and narratives that are unconventionally structured to the point of overindulgence. That’s not to say the dissenters are right on the money, but when all art is entirely subjective, everything remains open to personal preference and interpretation.

It’s been one of Nolan’s signatures since he first broke through with Memento, which carried a storyline so complex that the filmmaker has been forced to explain it several times through the years. It’s a hell of a mystery thriller, though, and set the stage for the director to move up the ranks to his current position of being able to do whatever he wants for however much he needs it to cost.

The nonlinear investigation of Leonard Shelby into the murder of his wife demands undivided attention, and while the cast are uniformly excellent across the board, Nolan admitted to The Guardian that were it not for the strength of his leading man’s performance, Memento may not have hit quite the same way.

“On the page it was a very cold script and that was the risk I was running; that it would be a puzzle that would only appeal to that hardcore audience who are fascinated with that kind of tale,” he explained. “What Guy Pearce brought to the character was a much greater degree of emotion, so that other people less interested in the plot could still get something out of the film.”

A concept as ambitious as Memento was always destined to win plaudits for its artistry, but it’s an entirely different thing to win over audiences and keep them invested throughout. Thanks in large part to Pearce’s work in the central role and the way he takes the viewer along on his journey without giving too much away ahead of time, it’s a gripping exercise in misdirection and subverting expectations, something that wasn’t lost on its director.

“Guy’s performance in Memento is often not appreciated,” Nolan suggested. “He certainly never got the recognition for his performance that I did for my screenplay, which is unfortunate because he brought so much to it.” It’s undoubtedly one of the best turns in Pearce’s entire filmography, with the Academy Award-winning Oppenheimer auteur fully aware that it might not have turned out quite so successfully had he not been firing on all cylinders.

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