Original release: September 5th, 2000
Running time: 113 minutes
Writer and director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano
How often have you struggled to remember something that happened months, weeks or even days ago? The name of that actor, the grocery item you meant to add to your shopping list, the topic of discussion from an office meeting. Some of us might keep at it until we get it or give up but most don’t take such memory lapses to heart. Now imagine that you can’t remember a portion of your life. You can recall some parts of it but others have gaping holes. I can’t decide which scenario I’d find more terrifyingly sad – this or complete amnesia. After all, the richness of life lies in the memories that comprise it.
In Memento, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) suffers from short term memory loss of a particularly vicious variety – he can remember his life up to a certain event after which everything is a black hole. The event in question is a crime incident in which his wife (Jorja Fox) was raped and murdered by two men. When Leonard tried to save her, he was hit on the head. This rendered him unable to store any new memories going forward. In the hunt for his wife’s killer, he employs Polaroids, notes and tattoos as memory aids to overcome this handicap. His search is aided by two acquaintances – Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) – who appear to be eager to help him. Leonard’s Polaroid of Teddy has a note that reads “don’t believe his lies”. This warning could also hold true for everyone else Leonard comes into contact with.
As a former insurance investigator, Leonard frequently recalls a Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky) who suffered from a similar affliction as his. He sounds both confident of his assessment of the case and confused as to how it relates to his own. Some of the film’s most tender moments lie in Leonard’s recollections of Sammy’s life.
Memento has classic noir elements illustrated by the suspenseful black and white close-ups of Leonard on the phone in a motel room. A master of narrative genius, Christopher Nolan gives us a thrilling mix of chronology in black and white scenes and reverse chronology in scenes with color. The non-linear narrative puts us in a suspended state of confusion for a majority of the film thus making it hard to piece together the story and recall details – in this confusion we walk the same path as Leonard. Fans of L.A. Confidential (1997) will get to see Guy Pearce in a more prominent neo-noir role here.
Leonard is an interesting case study. For someone suffering from memory loss he seems awfully sure of himself at times. He is guarded with most people but just as easily opens up as when on the phone discussing Sammy Jankis with an unidentified caller. On the other hand, he wears his emotions on his sleeve in the form of the many tattoos he has on his body. Most viewers will likely ask themselves at least once if he is faking his condition. Or, why he remembers that he has short-term memory loss if he is not able to store new memories since the crime.
The unusual pacing of the film is also a drawback in a way. Despite a well-crafted story that has an engaging narrative, the film lacks a well developed emotional arc in Leonard. The disorientation we experience at the hands of the disjointed structure of the film likely contributes to feeling of disconnect – we feel connected to Leonard’s mission of finding the truth but not to him. This is probably why repeated viewings helped to connect the dots better but also diminished my enjoyment of the film.
I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite films – Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004) – while watching Memento. Here’s Leonard struggling to recall recent events from his life which is the opposite of what Joel (Jim Carrey) from Eternal was trying to do. Both films build on the idea of projections of self based on memory. Memento goes a step further in this direction to ask – is what the mind believes real? What does reality mean? Is it the same for everyone?
The ending of the film answers some of the questions we’ve had but doesn’t make Leonard’s mental condition any more or less believable than at the start of the story. The ambiguity reminded me of the spinning top finale from Inception (2010), another Nolan film. In a chaotic world, Leonard believes what he chooses to as he tries to solve an elaborate puzzle. As must we.
Richa developed an interest in films while attending a weekly movie club as therapy during her pursuit of a graduate degree in Statistics. The interest evolved into a passion for the visual storytelling medium and she’s currently working on her first screenplay. She prefers films that view the world from a sociological lens and tell stories of courage.
Richa tries to use films as a means for becoming a better person and especially appreciates a film that proves her initial gut instinct wrong. Some of her favorites are All About My Mother, Rosemary's Baby, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Antichrist, In The Mood For Love, Omkara, Andaz Apna Apna and Ponette.
You can follow her on Twitter at @richarudola.