Running Out of Time: Non-Linear Narratives in Film

My favourite Christopher Nolan film is ‘Memento’. ‘Memento’ was Nolan’s first major film, and had a budget of $9 million (a tiny budget by modern Nolan standards). However, what it lacks in massive eye-catching action, it more than makes up for with an utterly original story, and a fascinating way of telling it. ‘Memento’ tells the story of Leonard (Guy Pearce) who suffers from short term memory loss (nobody mention Dory). The film opens at the end of the narrative, where Leonard successfully kills the antagonist, Teddy. Then, for the entire rest of the film, we see how he got to that point, each scene showing the previous five or so minutes. Not only this, but we also see Black and White flashbacks to an even earlier time, before the main narrative, and these are interjected with the backwards story as it plays out. Though it sounds utterly bizarre and totally confusing when explained, on screen it works phenomenally well. It introduced Nolan as a film-making force to be reckoned with, and is commonly hailed as one of the best films of the 2000’s. What makes the film so compelling is its use of non-linear narrative, and this method of story-telling in film is much more common than you might think.

Non-linear narrative films are defined by films that show events out of chronological order. This means that, for example, the ‘Back to The Future’ trilogy is not a non-linear franchise. This film still shows the events that take place to Marty McFly in the chronological order that they happen to him. Therefore, it still tells the story in order, making it a linear narrative (even if it’s occurs different time frames). However, if a film, for example, makes extensive use of flashbacks, not just for exposition but to help progress the narrative, then that is a non-linear film. Non-linear narratives often take some thinking to getting your head around them, but once you do, they can bring about some of the most satisfying and enjoyable films ever made.

It is widely accepted that the first film with a non-linear narrative was the 1916 film ‘Intolerance’, and since then the technique has been used in many films, including the “greatest film of all time”, ‘Citizen Kane’ (it’s not, it’s really not). Some key champions of this style include Nolan, who has continued using it in his films ‘The Prestige’, ‘Inception’ and ‘Dunkirk’ (among others), and Quentin Tarantino. His first two films, ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and ‘Pulp Fiction’ use this technique incredibly prominently. ‘Pulp Fiction’ is infamous for its out of time storyline; it starts in the middle of the story, moves to the beginning, then to the end, before ending in the middle of the story again. Yet, Tarantino managed to create a film that is, again, considered the “greatest film of all time” (but again, it’s not).

The fact is, these film makers know that their audience is intelligent and will understand this different method of story-telling. Clearly, non-linear narratives are accepted by the mainstream, as proven by films like 2004’s ‘Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind’ and 2016’s ‘Arrival’. These films also break the chronological narrative structure to great effect, earning them both a best screenplay nod at the Oscars (with Eternal Sunshine winning the award).

When ‘Memento’ was released on DVD, Christopher Nolan edited together a chronological version of the film, available as an Easter Egg on the second disc. Though interesting to watch, the chronological version of ‘Memento’ utterly pales in comparison the official version. It proves the power that non-linear narrative can have in story-telling, as how it can be used to create suspense, hide facts and excite audiences.


For more information about Memento’s Non-Linear narrative, check out Christopher Nolan’s own complicated explanation of it here:

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