by Josie Kafka
Memento is Christopher Nolan’s breakout hit. Based on a challenging short story by his brother Jonathan (a frequent collaborator and current executive producer of one my favorite current shows, Person of Interest), the movie is more mind-bending than Inception and a darker inquiry into the nature of identity than any of the Batman franchise films could be.
The film’s structure is its greatest puzzle and greatest gift. It is told in two main interweaving timelines. The first, shot in black and white, proceeds as a straightforward narrative in which Leonard wakes up in a motel room, takes a few phone calls, and gives himself a few routine tattoos to remind himself of the “clues” to the identity of his wife’s killer. Nolan intercuts that narrative with a second timeline, shot in color, with the scenes in reverse order.
That means we might suddenly shift from the black-and-white timeline to a colorized Leonard running as he wonders, in one of the movie’s most darkly comic scenes, “What am I doing? I’m chasing this guy.” [beat] “Oh, no he’s chasing me.” Not until 10 minutes later do we find out who, or why. That disorientation mimics Leonard’s condition: unable to form short-term memory, his brain resets every 15 minutes or so—and stress makes it worse. Leonard forgets mid-chase what is going on; we as viewers are equally clueless until the backstory is revealed.
But we do get those revelations, and that’s what makes Memento so addictively watchable and so puzzling. Leonard never remembers why he was being chased, but as we discover the whys and wherefores, we realize that almost nothing, and almost no one, in this story is to be trusted.
Including Leonard. Although most of the film consists of the two interwoven narratives I just mentioned, there are a few shots—some in color, some in black and white, and some contradictory—that represent flashbacks to Leonard’s marriage and his career as an insurance investigator. In that capacity, before his “incident,” Leonard investigated a man named Sammy Jankis who also suffered from anterograde amnesia.
When it was released in 2000, Memento prompted a tsunami of Internet chatter and theorization about what really happened, how many times, to whom, by whom, and why. Like Inception (but more cheekily), Memento drops hints, clues, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them scenes of the sort that reward a second and seventieth rewatch.
For instance, are Leonard’s memories of his pre-accident life trustworthy? Or can he condition himself to believe them simply by repeating them enough? One character suggests as much, but that character’s motives in doing so, our assessment of his character, and Leonard’s assessment of his character—it all adds up to confusion. Like Leonard, we never have enough information to fully answer the question of what is happening, or why.
What we do know is that Leonard is easily manipulated, in part because he believes too strongly in his own powers of understanding. Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), Natalie (the always delightful Carrie-Anne Moss), and bit players like Dodd (Callum Keith Rennie!) steer Leonard’s notes, Polaroids, and tattoos in a particular direction. Leonard thinks he is playing a long game and has figured out the rules for survival, but he doesn’t know he is being played.
And what can Leonard do if he can’t trust his own notes, his own handwriting, and his own memories? Unable to form new memories—unable to make a story out of the recent events of his life—Leonard exists in a permanent state of the present, which he disregards as “trivia.” He takes the long view of life, wanting to avenge his wife’s death, but cannot establish a bird’s-eye view of his own history.
Can any of us? Memento suggests we can’t: the present may be trivial, but the past is who we are. And yet we pick and choose what to remember and how to remember it. What we’ve done or undone, who we trust and why—those are subjective experiences colored by our trivial, disorienting, timeless present. But if we cannot know for certain what has happened, if we must suspect any form of memory—from the memento object to the misty-colored films that play in our head—can we ever truly know (as one character puts it) who we were then, and who we are now?
[Although this is a minimal-spoiler review, the comments fair game for any and all spoilers and theories. Beware!]
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)