Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is not your ordinary protagonist. In his previous life, Shelby was a sleazy insurance investigator intent on denying claims in order to further his career with his employers. One night, Shelby awakes to find two intruders raping his wife. Shelby kills one of the intruders but sustains a head injury that causes him to lose his short-term memory. Later, he finds that he can remember everything in his life up until the injury but can no longer remember new information for more than fifteen minutes, and for even less time under duress. Worst of all, he finds that his wife did not survive the assault.
With nothing but memories of his wife, Shelby is consumed with tracking down the escaped assailant, which is no easy task considering his condition. In order to keep track of his clues, Shelby has taken to writing himself notes (he can still remember his handwriting), taking Polaroids (on which he also takes notes) and tattooing the most important clues everywhere on his body.
Christopher Nolan’s Memento opens with a hand holding a Polaroid picture of a dead body. As the credits unfold, you soon realize that the picture is in a state of un-development. That is to say, the image on the picture is slowly fading in what is a carefully planned parallel to Lenny’s memory. Before long, the scene plays out in reverse, culminating with the murder captured in the photo and thus begins the end of the film. Like the Ben Kingsley film Betrayal or the poorly executed “backwards” Seinfeld episode, Memento is told in reverse. Each scene ends roughly where the last scene began which allows the film to give you the facts, but they are facts that you don’t know you need just yet. Because of the way the film is told, things such as Lenny’s suit and the scratches on his face are details that seem insignificant, but may have a deeper meaning. If Nolan revealed the action through a linear storyline, these small clues would not seem so important, but told in reverse, the viewer unravels the mystery much like Lenny does, in little forgotten pieces.
Aside from Lenny, the only two characters that matter are Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss). Both characters undeniably have hidden agendas. Like the goofball hotel clerk that rents Lenny several rooms at once because business is slow, Teddy and Natalie use and abuse Leonard because they know that absolution is only fifteen minutes away. The audience is as clueless as Leonard when it comes to real motivations of these characters, plus they fall victim to the same conceit as the narrative: they are only as real as Lenny’s memory will allow them to be. Because the characters and their motivations remain vague they are never more than two-dimensional. Most of what Nolan reveals about these two are in the form of Lenny’s notes. If you can believe the notes, then the mystery is solved, but what caused Lenny to make the evaluation that he chose to write down for future reference?
Since Lenny’s narrative holds the film together it is easy to suspect that his clues make him the most deceptive character in the bunch. How far can you trust someone that can only remember his life from a single point and back? What if his notes are lies, or misleading or written by someone else? The character claims that he can remember his life prior to his injury, but is that true? He doesn’t even remember how long it has been since his wife was killed. How long has he been searching? How much does he really know? How much of what he “remembers” is the truth? How does he remember to look at his pictures? What really happened to his wife?
Because the narrator cannot answer these questions and because of the film’s narrative style, Memento is a cheat; a clever cheat, but a cheat nonetheless. Nothing can be believed, the director only allows you to know what he wants you to believe, and worst of all, without the contrived structure the film is only a routine thriller that never fills in any of the holes it digs and never explains what happened in the gap preceding the events at the end of the film and the assault. Many noir films have some sort of twist, but the twist in Memento is that you can’t believe anything you have just watched and the only payoff is that you can figure out Lenny’s motivation behind the murder at the beginning of the film, but you can never really understand it.
Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), the main character of David Lynch’s similarly themed and structured film, Lost Highway, doesn’t like video cameras because he “likes to remember things his way” and not the way they really happened. He might as well have been speaking about Memento. Lost Highway succeeds where Memento fails because it doesn’t pretend to offer any explanation of what has happened, nor does it really need one. That is not say that Memento doesn’t offer equally profound and existential statements on reality, it’s just that David Lynch has made a career of being cryptic and is able to bury the importance of the facts. Nolan just makes you want to know the facts more by the end of the film. The narrative could have continued for another hour in the same direction and you still wouldn’t know what has happened. In order to know what happens, you need to see the series of events immediately following his wife’s murder, or even what really happened during the assault, not just Lenny’s recollection.
Memento doesn’t stand well without using its gimmick as a crutch. In comparison, Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects is a film that doesn’t need a gimmick, but chooses to use one anyway. The narrator of that film (Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kent), is well aware of the facts, but chooses to mislead everyone anyway, unlike Lenny, who cannot even remember if he is being misleading. The story that Verbal weaves works on its own without the gimmick ending. So, why include it? Because the gimmick is something that throws everyone off, something that make people come back and see the movie again, and most of all, something that makes people take notice of the film. Without the gimmick, The Usual Suspects is a great crime thriller; with the gimmick, the film is a clever and great crime thriller. With Memento, Nolan has created a story around a gimmick but is never able to get past the gimmick.
Memento’s story is presented almost as a wrap-around to the regular narrative of the film and after almost every scene, we get to hear a little bit more about Sammy Jankis. Each new detail you learn about the character could seemingly be about Lenny and not Jankis. But these clues only stand if you believe that the parallels between the two characters are more than coincidental. Since Lenny has no new memories, then how is he able to recall a story that he has made up since his injury? The only answer is that his memory loss is psychological, or part of a mental illness, and the story is the way his subconscious is dealing with his past. If Lenny is indeed mentally ill, can the audience really believe any of his past memories either? Everything could be a lie. These scenes may hold the only clues to making any sort of sense out of the film.
The film’s website, www.otnemem.com, is an invaluable resource of clues and information about the characters of the film including facts that are never revealed in the film (another reason why the film is a cheat)! The website goes a long way to explaining what happened, not only during the assault, but also in the time between the assault and the end of the film (remember that is really the beginning). Furthermore, it shows you police reports, Polaroid pictures of people that aren’t in the film (possibly confirming information revealed by Teddy in the film) and notes Lenny has written to himself that also do not appear in the film.
The film does lay down some cards, but Nolan has stacked the deck. It is impossible to know whether or not you should believe the film’s clues because they are as crooked and misleading as the narrative of the film, causing it to become a 150-piece jigsaw puzzle that is missing 25 well-chosen pieces. Probably the best way to understand the movie is to see it twice, check out the website and wait for the DVD to come out so that you listen to the director’s commentary because he is the only one that knows for sure.
Despite its flaws, Memento has a way of staying under your skin, much like Lenny’s tattoos. Even two weeks after seeing the film, I find myself obsessing over little details and spouting theories to anyone who will listen, despite the fact that I thought the film was a competent thriller at best. Maybe this article is a note to myself reminding me why I didn’t really like the movie for the fear that I might actually change my mind somewhere down the road. At least I will have this to prove the reasons why I didn’t like it. Either way, love it or hate it, Memento is a hard one to forget.