Screenplay : Christopher Nolan (based on the story by Jonthan Nolan)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Guy Pearce (Leonard Shelby), Carrie-Anne Moss (Natalie), Joe Pantoliano (Teddy), Mark Boone Junior (Burt), Stephen Tobolowsky (Sammy Jankis), Jorja Fox (Leonard's Wife), Harriet Sansom Harris (Mrs. Jankis)
In Memento, writer/director Christopher Nolan puts us directly into the experience of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a man who is seeking vengeance for the rape and murder of his wife. Leonard's mission is one of romantic vengeance; he is sure that actions have meaning in and of themselves, something that is of absolute importance because, even if he gains the revenge he so desires, he will not remember it.
Leonard suffers from anteriograde amnesia, a real-life condition in which he cannot form new memories. He does not have amnesia--he knows who he is and his entire life history up until the moment when he and his wife were attacked; everything after that, though, fades away after mere moments. Of course, because he has no new memories, it is impossible to know how long ago his wife was killed; time has literally stood still since her death.
The only way Leonard can function is by taking Polaroid snapshots of important objects and people and making constant notes to himself. The most important notes of all he doesn't leave to chance; he has them tattooed on his chest, arms, and legs. The most prominent note of all is tattooed backward just beneath his collar bone so he can read it while looking in the mirror: "John G. raped and murdered your wife."
Nolan, who wrote the screenplay for Memento based on a short story by his brother, Jonathan Nolan, takes a huge structural gamble by telling his mystery narrative backward. This does not mean that he starts at the end and then tells the story in flashback. No, he literally tells the story backward, with each scene in the film coming before the scene that would have chronologically preceded it.
The film opens with Leonard killing the man he believes to be responsible for the rape and murder of his wife, and from there the story tracks backward, scene by scene. Thus, the beginning of each scene is the same as end of the scene that will come after it (this is because, while the individual scenes are played in reverse chronological fashion, the events within each scene necessarily have to play in normal linearity). If that sounds confusing, it is, at first. But, once you sink into the flow and rhythm of movie's backward universe, it all comes together as you realize that the film's pleasure comes not from the usual anticipation of finding out what happens next, but what happened before.
There are several characters who reappear throughout Leonard's quest. The two most important are Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), a woman who has also lost someone close to her and is helping Leonard's plight, and Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), the man who Leonard kills in the opening scene, yet appears to be his friend. On the Polaroid of Teddy, Leonard has scrawled "Do not believe his lies," which casts doubt on everything Teddy says and does. But, what made Leonard write that in the first place?
The structure of the film is complicated even further by the interweaving of an experience Leonard had before "the incident," when he was a claims investigator for a major insurance company. The experience involved a man named Sammy Jankins (Stephen Tobolowsky), who also suffered from anteriograde amnesia. Sammy Jankins' story is played out in fragmented, black-and-white flashbacks scattered throughout the film as Leonard relates it over the phone to an unknown listener. How Jankins dealt with his affliction becomes a key component in Leonard's own strategy; in fact, he has tattooed on his hand "Remember Sammy Jankins," so he can never forget him.
Memento is a brilliant piece of cinema in which the decision to tell the story in reverse is not a gag or a gimmick. Rather, Nolan does it for a very particular reason: By telling the narrative backward, he aligns us as closely as possible with Leonard's experience of the story. Because Leonard cannot form new memories, everything that has happened before the moment he is in is a blank slate. By denying us that same information, we experience the story much as Leonard does. Numerous scenes open with Leonard in confusion as to where he is and what has happened, which builds your connection with him because you are feeling the exact same thing. Along with him, we are forced to rely on pictures, quickly written notes, and (most importantly) what other characters tell us in order to piece together the clues. It's a strange, unnerving experience because it twists the way we normally think of our life experience. That is, we have past experiences to guide us in the choices we make, something that is denied to Leonard.
However, as viewers, we are not entirely within Leonard's experience because we know something he doesn't know: the future. We know where all of this will lead, thus our identification is splintered between experiencing Leonard's often-blanked-out confusion while also knowing where his present road will end. What would have been a whodunit becomes not only a how-did-he-do-it and why-did-he-do-it, but also a did-he-do-it-right? Just because Leonard kills someone named John G. at the beginning of the movie does not mean he necessarily got the right man.
What is perhaps most unnerving and engaging about Memento is the way it so brilliantly deconstructs any notion we have of anything being knowable. At several points in the film Leonard recites the importance of facts over memories. Eye-witness testimony is not reliable and memories can be warped over time. Facts, though, are facts. But, are they?
As the film moves backward through Leonard's mission to find his wife's murderer, knowledge is called into question on all fronts. His tattoos become symbolic of concrete truth, yet, by the end, they have been shown to be just as fallible as memory. Facts can be distorted, people can be manipulated, and the only thing we know for sure is that nothing can be known for sure. Nolan drives this point home forcibly in the finale, which shows that, in the end, much of what we consider truth is wholly reliant on our own truthfulness to ourselves.
Most films, in their own way, attempt to reify some kind of grand Truth with a capital T. Memento takes the opposite approach. It is the rare film that makes you less sure of what you think you know than when you walked into the theater. It is an unnerving, but deeply penetrating experience that elevates what could have been a routine mystery thriller into a meditation on the slippery nature of reality itself.
©2001 James Kendrick