There's something about nonlinear storytelling that just feels magical. It really showcases the power of the movies. Of course, my favorite example of this is Memento and its reverse chronology.
But this is a movie that needs an explanation. It's told backward, forward, and with some big reveals that need extra analysis.
Today, we're going to dig deep into Memento. We're going to check out the ending, look at a plot summary, talk about the Nolans and Guy Pearce, and finish with a deconstruction of the themes.
Sound good? Let's dive in.
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Memento Movie Explained: The Meaning Behind the Christopher Nolan Masterpiece
Memento came out in the year 2000. It was classified as a neo-noir mystery thriller and was written and directed by Christopher Nolan. The film's screenplay was based on a pitch by Nolan's brother Jonathan Nolan, who wrote the short story "Memento Mori" from the concept.
Memento Movie Summary and Cast
Guy Pearce stars as Leonard Shelby, a man who suffers from amnesia, resulting in short-term memory loss. He also is unable to form new memories, so he has to rely on context clues to put things together.
He is searching for the people who attacked him and killed his wife, piecing together clues from notes he left for himself while using an intricate system of Polaroids and tattoos on his body to track information he cannot remember. Carrie-Anne Moss (Natalie) and Joe Pantoliano (Teddy) co-star as two people who might be taking advantage of Leonard.
'Memento'Credit: 20th Century Fox
Memento Plot Explained
We open on a Polaroid photograph of a dead man, and we see the sequence play in reverse. The photo reverts to its undeveloped state, entering the camera before the man is shot in the head. As the film continues, we go from color to black and white for different sequences.
The black-and-white sequences begin with Leonard Shelby. He was an insurance investigator but now is a broken man, suffering from an injury. We are in a motel room speaking to an unknown caller on the phone. Leonard has anterograde amnesia and is unable to store recent memories. This is the result of an attack by two men, which ended with his wife's death, and his injury.
Leonard explains that he killed the attacker who raped and strangled his wife Catherine, but a second clubbed him and escaped.
The police did not accept that there was a second attacker, but Leonard believed the attacker's name is "John G" or "James G," and Leonard is determined to find him. He uses tattoos on his body, Polaroids, and other notes to compile evidence. He also recalls a man named Sammy Jankis, who was another anterograde amnesiac. Leonard met him when he was selling insurance.
After tests confirmed Sammy's inability to learn new tasks through repetition, Leonard believed that his condition was psychological (and perhaps faked) and turned down Sammy's insurance claim.
This crippled Sammy and his wife. Sammy's distraught wife repeatedly asked Sammy to administer her insulin shots for her diabetes, hoping he would remember and would stop himself from giving her a fatal overdose. However, Sammy continued to administer the injections until his wife died.
When we are in the color sequences, we're following the mystery in reverse, of how Leonard came to believe the man he shot in the opening scene was "John G."
We see Leonard gets a tattoo of John G's license plate. Finding a note in his clothes, Leonard heads to meet Natalie, a bartender who resents Leonard because he wears the clothes and drives her boyfriend's car, Jimmy Grantz. Jimmy might be a drug dealer, but we aren't sure.
After understanding Leonard's condition, she takes advantage of Leonard, getting him to drive a man named Dodd out of town. She offers to run the license plate as a favor for him as well. Meanwhile, Leonard meets with a contact named Teddy, who helps with Dodd, but warns about Natalie.
Leonard finds that he had previously written on his Polaroid of Teddy, warning himself not to trust him. Natalie provides Leonard with the driver's license for a John Edward Gammell, which is Teddy's full name.
This confirms Leonard's information on "John G" and his self-written warnings. Leonard drives Teddy to an abandoned building, leading to the opening of the movie where he shoots him.
'Memento'Credit: 20th Century Fox
Memento Ending Explained
In the final black-and-white sequence, prompted by the unseen caller, Leonard meets with Teddy, an undercover officer, who has found Leonard's "John G," Jimmy. Teddy directs Leonard to the abandoned building, and when Jimmy arrives, Leonard strangles him and takes a Polaroid photo of the body. But as the photo develops, the black-and-white transitions to the final color sequence of the movie.
We see Leonard swap clothes with Jimmy, hearing him whisper "Sammy." As Leonard has only told Sammy's story to those he has met, he suddenly doubts Jimmy's role in his wife's murder.
Teddy arrives and asserts that Jimmy was John G. Teddy loses his cool and says that he helped Leonard kill the real attacker a year ago, and he has been using Leonard ever since. Teddy points out that the name "John G" is very common. Teddy explains that Leonard will cyclically forget and begin his search again and that even Teddy himself has a "John G" name.
Further, Teddy says that the story Leonard tells about Sammy Jenkins is Leonard's own story, a memory Leonard has repressed to escape feelings of guilt, replacing himself in the story with Sammy.
After hearing Teddy confess, Leonard burns the photograph of dead Jimmy and of himself right after killing the actual attacker a year ago. In a monologue, Leonard explains that he wants justice against anyone who has wronged him. Therefore, he's going to trick himself into thinking Teddy is a bad guy, and kill him for revenge. Leonard orders a tattoo of Teddy's license plate and writes a note to himself that Teddy is not to be trusted so that he will mistake Teddy for John G and eventually kill him. Leonard drives off in Jimmy's car, confident that, despite this lie, he will retain enough grasp of the world to know that his actions have consequences.
When this movie came out, there were lots of different analyses of the subject. It took film festivals by storm. How many times do you get to see a protagonist track down and kill a bad guy in a new way?
The Director of the Integrative Neural Immune Program at the National Institute of Mental Health identified the film as "close to a perfect exploration of the neurobiology of memory."
And he expanded on the themes of the movie Memento, stating, "This thought-provoking thriller is the kind of movie that keeps reverberating in the viewer's mind, and each iteration makes one examine preconceived notions in a different light. Memento is a movie for anyone interested in the workings of memory and, indeed, in what it is that makes our own reality."
Nolan is quoted as saying, "One day I came up with this notion that if you withhold the information from the audience that’s withheld from the protagonist, then you’re doing quite a good job of putting them in his head... The way to do that is to structure the film backward."
Check out this breakdown of the timeline with clear visuals of what scenes occur when, and with who is in them.
Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Memento Theme Analysis
So, what are the themes at play at the center of this movie? I think the main thrust of this movie is about control. Every character in this movie thinks they have a semblance of it. Whether it's Leonard seeking his revenge, control through his notes and tattoos, Teddy controlling Leonard and sending him on missions, or Natalie's control over Leonard.
Of course, we learn all of these elements of control are an illusion. The only person we control is ourselves, and even we can betray that control. Every person in this movie is lying to themselves in one way or another. Leonard's lie is literal, one that helps him get revenge for a crime he cannot remember. He also layers his lie, telling Sammy's story instead of carrying the guilt of his own. Guilt is also a prevalent theme. It's under every underlying mission Leonard undertakes. He has a pang of guilt he's buried in Sammy Jenkins, and is using a quest to try and forgive himself for that.
That quest takes us on a revenge journey. This revenge is empty because Leonard knows he may never remember it. But it's the justice he thinks has to be done to sew everything up. again, showing that having a perfect amount of justice is never possible.
Scott Tobias of The A.V. Club says, "By going backward in time, Memento draws the real mystery from viewers learning the first step in Leonard's investigation, the origins of his self-deception. Yes, we also learn what really happened to his wife, what happened to him, and what happened to his killer, and we understand more about Teddy's complicated role in using Leonard for his own purposes. But the most telling revelation, at the end of Memento, isn't limited to his condition: Leonard lies to himself. And when he isn't outright lying to himself, he's guilty of confirmation bias, accepting only the facts that affirm his pre-cooked conclusions, and tossing out all the rest."
Memento Movie Meaning
So what does this all mean? I think with a movie like this, the meaning comes from the idea that no matter what, all of life is going to be subjective to our understanding of it.
We can make little notes and even have memories, but at the moment things occur, our responses and actions are dictated by the moment and not necessarily the past.
In an interview with Chuck Stephens for Filmmaker in 2001, Nolan also stated this about the movie's meaning:
"The most interesting part of that for me is that audiences seem very unwilling to believe the stuff that Teddy [Pantoliano] says at the end and yet why? I think it's because people have spent the entire film looking at Leonard's photograph of Teddy, with the caption: "Don't believe his lies." That image really stays in people's heads, and they still prefer to trust that image even after we make it very clear that Leonard's visual recollection is completely questionable. It was quite surprising, and it wasn't planned. What was always planned was that we don't ever step completely outside Leonard's head, and that we keep the audience in that interpretive mode of trying to analyze what they want to believe or not. For me, the crux of the movie is that the one guy who might actually be the authority on the truth of what happened is played by Joe Pantoliano ... who is so untrustworthy, especially given the baggage he carries in from his other movies: he's already seen by audiences as this character actor who's always unreliable. I find it very frightening, really, the level of uncertainty and malevolence Joe brings to the film."
'Memento'Credit: 20th Century Fox
Summing Up Memento Movie Explained—The Meaning Behind the Christopher Nolan Masterpiece
Now that you've gotten us to explain the movie Memento and get some analysis, it's time to revisit it yourself. What are some theories and storytelling elements you think the Nolan brothers planted in this movie? What are your explanations for the ending and the cross-mediums in storytelling?
This is a fun movie that put the Nolans forward as important filmmakers and it started their career in Hollywood.
What are some of your favorite Memento theories and ideas? Let us know in the comments.