Memento (2000)

Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) holds his past in his hand, not his head, in "Memento."

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Based upon the short story “Memento Mori” by Jonathan Nolan. Produced by Jennifer Todd, Suzanne Todd. Photographed by Wally Pfister. Edited by Dody Dorn. Production designed by Patti Podesta. Music by David Julyan. Starring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Jr., Jorja Fox, Stephen Tobolowski, Harriet Sansom Harris.

We rely upon our memories to get us through life, to make sense of it all, and to extract meaning from existence. This is where I live, and this is where I work. This is my girlfriend, or wife. I love her. Occasionally, we even need help getting through trauma because our memories are far too strong to bear. They can cause us pain, as anyone who has lost a loved one, or had a messy break-up, can attest. But at the end of the day, memories make us whole. They shape our perceptions, which is the only evidence we have that anything ever really existed anyway. So for Leonard Shelby, life is a curse. Besotted by short-term memory loss, everything on his radar is fleeting; nothing lasts. Even his makeshift methods for taking notes are seriously flawed. He is removed from any linear thinking, existing only in the now, adrift in a sea with no beginning, no end, just the present. It’s the kind of situation that you can’t even describe it by saying it “must be hell.” It is hell.

Greek mythology tells the story of Sisyphus, a king condemned to eternal punishment in the underworld consisting of one task: move a boulder up a hill, and then watch it fall back down again. So he pushes it up again, and again, and again. The job is useless, but he’ll do the same thing over and over. It’s a parable about nihilism; about how one’s life can be made arbitrary and hollow, robbed of import. For Lenny (Guy Pearce), his “condition” is his underworld, and revenge is his boulder. The last thing he remembers is the death of his wife, murdered by a mysterious intruder who knocked Lenny out with a blow to the head. Now he is incapable of making new memories. He knows his name, his job, the murder, his life up to the murder. But after that, nothing. How he got “here,” what “here” is, what he is doing, how long he’s been doing it, his friends, his enemies, everything. He explains over and over that he has this “condition,” and it is pervasive: anything that happens to him will be forgotten by his mind, turned over by new events, multiple times per day. Nothing sticks. The reset button in his brain is constantly pressed over and over. In order to plot his revenge, he chases clues and scrawls them across his body in a spiderweb of tattoos, aided by Polaroids and oblique notes. He knows that his wife’s murderer is a mysterious figure named “John G.” Aside from that, he’s a blank.

As audience members, we can relate to this, because the story, famously, is told backwards. Actually, that’s not quite true. There are two parallel tracks in Memento: one in reverse, the other forwards, both alternating, and eventually they link. This device, which gained Memento instant notoriety (and, to be fair, probably a great deal of its initial attention) sounds like a gimmick, but it’s not, actually. If Leonard’s life constantly starts in media res, then so must we. What better way to elicit empathy with a man who doesn’t remember the past than to fix it so that we, as audience members, do not know it, either? To tell this story linearly would be to keep Leonard at arms length, to make him seem like a madman, when really he’s a victim. He absolutely does the best he can, but without continuity, he’s a pinball in a never-ending game, constantly spinning off in new adventures with no recollections of the old ones. As every scene jumps back several minutes in time, Lenny must reorient himself, and so must we. There is another reason, in my opinion, for the non-linear structure, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Two satellites appear consistently in Lenny’s universe: Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), a helpful guy who says he is a cop, and Natalie (Carrie Anne-Moss), a scarred woman who seems to display a curious sympathy for Lenny’s plight. Both of these people plead innocence, and claim to be helping Lenny, but their motives ping-pong between suspicious and assured. Teddy, who wears a grin a little too big, and a has a demeanor a little too pleasant, acts as Lenny’s sidekick. He seems genuinely concerned about him, but there are loose ends about Teddy that don’t add up, and it doesn’t help that Teddy’s Polaroid says “don’t believe his lies.” Natalie, a lower-class bartender, is mixed up in something involving drugs, and grows rather fond of Leonard, but her attempts at sympathy feel curiously reserved, as if she’s holding something back. Manipulative? Cold? Maybe it means nothing, maybe everything. How can you really know someone, anyway, when you meet them fresh everyday, despite years of acquaintance? Lenny used to be a good judge of character, and now he trusts both his instincts, and the concept that he is the same person he once was, which may be a mistake.

Lenny’s quest for the truth brings him through the slimiest, scummiest streets in the San Fran Valley. He’s a formidable presence, quick to violence, but he’s when his “condition” hits, he’s easy prey. He checks into a fleabag motel and ends up being double-booked by a shifty manager, who baldly admits his scam, because Leonard will never remember it, anyway. Is it any wonder he’s so paranoid, avoiding phone calls, listening to the sounds behind his door in horror? The ground beneath his feet is always shaky, not just because he’s far from the truth, but also because someone is keeping him from it. Natalie? Teddy? Both? One of them is clearly exploiting him, but he’d be hard-pressed to determine which. Certainty is a luxury that has left him, and everyone he meets is so distant and self-interested, they’re no help. It’s like Leonard’s life is a play, where not only does it start over every so often, but each time, the actors switch parts without telling him. All he can trust is himself, and his tattoos, because they are quantifiably true. Right?

Memento is unconventional, yes, but it’s also a film noir, featuring a man who navigates corrupt environs while harboring a singular, tragic flaw. Lenny is consumed with obsession over avenging his wife’s murder, and there is poetry in his answer when he is asked why he would pursue such a goal when he won’t know it’s completion for long: “My wife deserves vengeance whether I remember it or not.” But with that thinking, Lenny has assumed that he will one day be satisfied by the answer, and the act of revenge, and that’s maybe incorrect. Repetition, he states, is his key to combating short-term memory loss. Lenny’s obsession is his only constant in life, the only thing that his long-term memory still holds as meaningful. This causes him to act in circles, repeat behaviors, find the same clues over again. He keeps progressing towards nothing, because his obsession defines him, and by resolving it, he would ruin the remnants of his existence. As a former insurance investigator, he knows that, by definition, people are liars. They choose to remember differently, or subconsciously misremember in order to feed their own egos, the very righteousness of their perception. He clings to objectivity, but in his condition, such a thing does not even exist, let alone matter. If you disfigure your own history, and yet no one corrects you, what relevance is the concrete past? This thinking figures into a climax that is ultimately heartbreaking and deeply sad.

Remember, of course, that the climax is at the end of the movie, but the middle of the story, and it’s also a beginning. It’s tricky, but it’s not a cheap trick. By playing backwards, Memento is literally predictable, because, of course, we know where the characters are going to end up. For once, that is a conscious, workable choice and not a fatal flaw, because Memento is, in essence, a story about loops and circles, about repetition (have I said that before?). Leonard, with so many notes and tattoos and Polaroids and odd feelings and contradictory instincts and shadily-obtained clues, is lost in his own labyrinth, and there’s every possibility he’ll never find his way out. Or even want to. He may have even navigated it before, countless times, and arrived at the exact same places. To see Memento unspool the way it does is to fully appreciate Lenny’s trajectory, to see that his quest has no start point, no end point, which makes it, by definition, pointless. In essence Memento is a time-travel movie, because it has a character in a self-sustaining loop more diabolical than anything in Groundhog Day. We, as an audience, literally know where he is going, and by processing that right at the start, we are introduced to the idea that where he is going does not matter. It’s…fate, really, but the kind that is informed by human nature. The tragedy of a righteous man sinking into a world of nihilism is made palpable by the story structure. By shunning convention, the viewer feels uneasy, gaining a growing sense of complex worlds in violent collision. Most movies have arcs, but this one purposefully rejects such geometry, and the structure is an essential part of this strategy.

It’s all superbly crafted. Pearce, our hero, is weary and sympathetic, an everyman who we can believe in, even when he’s taken to shocking depths. Teddy is well-suited to Pantoliano’s studied unctuousness; he’s the kind of person who you would have a drink with, but not buy a car from. Carrie-Anne Moss, best known as Trinity from The Matrix movies, displays here a seldom-seen intensity and clarity (exemplified in a cruel scene where she presses Lenny’s buttons exactly right in order to get what she needs from him). The screenplay, by Christopher Nolan (based on his brother Jonathan’s short story “Memento Mori”), is an ingenious puzzle box, always unlocking and then locking again. The forward narrative has as its centerpiece a story that Lenny likes to tell: the sad tale of Sammy Jenkis (Stephen Tobolowski), who suffered from a similar condition as Lenny and made a tragic mistake. “Great story, gets better every time you tell it,” sneers Teddy, and it’s certainly supportable that the Sammy Jenkins story means something other than it appears. I have my ideas, and you will as well. They may not be the same ideas, but movies like Memento don’t exist so that everyone can think the same thoughts.

Hmm. Thoughts. I keep going back to thoughts, or questions, or ideas. But, really, that is what Memento generates, because, despite its mystery, it is not about plot, or really even character development. It’s about the granular makeup of a character even as they slip through the hourglass into nothingness. In its own, audience-friendly way, it is about existentialism, about how rules can be turned on their head, how everything we hold dear can be ripped away by a heartless world, and how we can still be at fault. It resonates. Films like Memento are special reminders of what movies can do, even though they rarely try: something completely, utterly, inescapably different.

Nolan, who also directed, has made a career out of moody, introspective pieces, even when tackling big name franchises (like his Batman pictures). His specialty is characters who have their philosophies turned against them–tragedies of people engulfed by obsession and guilt, who lose their very identity. Memento, the film that put him on the map, is confident even when it is confusing, because the confusion is all part of the game. It’s no coincidence that Nolan has since made The Prestige, a story of magicians, because Nolan admires the pure magic of film, and, more broadly, the nature of conjuring acts. Not tricks that exist to exhibit cleverness, but magic acts that say something, perhaps something even important. In Memento, his magic trick is within human memory itself, and he plays with our own beliefs with the determination of a storyteller who must tell you something, even if he is frightened about what it means. As civilized people, we hold true to the ideals that life has purpose, and that it all matters in the end. It’s what keeps up sane. Nolan’s greatest illusion in Memento is to make those truths disappear, as if they never were. Instead, he reveals an unyielding abyss, and it is one that goes all the way down.


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