Who is Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce)? If you ask him he’s an Insurance Investigator from San Francisco, this is an example of the convenient answers for every justifiable question asked of him throughout the ponderous and fascinating Memento.
Released in 2000, Memento is the second film from current cinematic giant Christopher Nolan. Written with his brother Jonathan, the show runner of HBO’s Westworld, Memento is a film told backwards and benefits on as many watches as you can take. A film that improves on each additional viewing, new pieces seeming to stand out, doubt encroaching on the audience as to what has actually happened. The film alternates between telling it’s story backwards in a reverse linear way and a black and white “present” with Leonard talking on the phone to someone – this occurs directly before the last events of the film.
Leonard has short term memory loss from a home invasion attack where he suffered a head injury and the death of his wife. Finding her killer is Leonard’s only driving motivation, all he has left, being robbed of who he is, moment by moment. This is a classic neo-noir with every element coming to the surface. A seemingly simple story about a loner, a cop (Joe Pantoliano), and a drug dealer’s girlfriend Natalie (Carrie Anne Moss). Femme Fatale, constant lying between the 3 main characters, the question of identity, a bundle of money, redemption and damnation.
This movie is an incredible example of how complex a simple story can possibly be. It’s layered more than most period dramas and takes it’s time revealing everything over a three day period. The film opens with Leonard talking on the phone to someone about his short term memory loss and relates it to Sammy Jankis (Stephen Toblowski), a man with the same condition explaining the reason for all the tattoos we see, helping him remember what he’s after, what he’s chasing, and who he is.
This movie is very dependent on editing. The director has to know exactly what he wants, perfectly placed scenes, alternating from the “present” past to the non linear reverse story-line. It’s an impressive attempt, so assured and confident in what you want and executing it so effectively to a precision that is almost cold and calculated. One of the more notable scenes in the film takes place in black and white showing Leonard as an Insurance Investigator talking with Sammy Jankis, a man suffering from short term memory loss. Through weeks of visits Leonard suspects that Mr. Jankis should be able to make new memories if only through muscle memory. Because of the hope he gives his desperate wife, she continuously asks for her insulin shot, Sammy forgetting each time keeps giving it to her, resulting in her death.
Maybe Leonard feels that this is his punishment, his hell. But Memento also has these two wonderful monologues by Leonard, showing his humanity and soul both about the loss of his wife and memory.
“I don’t even know how long she’s been gone. It’s like I’ve woken up in bed and she’s not here… because she’s gone to the bathroom or something. But somehow, I know she’s never gonna come back to bed. If I could just… reach over and touch… her side of the bed, I would know that it was cold, but I can’t. I know I can’t have her back… but I don’t want to wake up in the morning, thinking she’s still here. I lie here not knowing… how long I’ve been alone. So how… how can I heal? How am I supposed to heal if I can’t… feel time?”
“You can just feel the details. The bits and pieces you never bothered to put into words. And you can feel these extreme moments… even if you don’t want to. You put these together, and you get the feel of a person. Enough to know how much you miss them… and how much you hate the person who took them away.”
Guy Pearce does a wonderful job showing an incredible amount of vulnerability almost to a animalistic degree in some scenes with Carrie Anne Moss, such a tender openness is on display. We learn throughout the movie that Leonard has killed Jimmy and that she is aware of this, making the intimate scenes so much more powerful on repeated viewings.
Memento is some kind of great magic trick in it’s ability to keep you suspended each time you watch it. Even after coming to your own conclusions, Nolan is incredibly skilled at layering doubt and momentary shots of contradictory plot elements that overshadow Leonard’s own narrative. We even might question at moments if Leonard really does have “this condition”. I have my own views of what I believe, that despite the corrupt nature of Teddy, he is probably the most honest person in the final scene of the film.
Telling Leonard some extremely hard truths that he can’t face, creating a chase, another distraction to feel righteous about. The issue put forth by Teddy in the final scene suggests that Leonard was the one who gave his wife insulin shots until she passed away, we see this in a shot/flash and Leonard denies it. That there was an attack, but despite his wife being raped, she survived. This puts the whole movie into doubt, that we have a truly unreliable narrator.
This is such an impressive cinematic feat that verges on the greatness of something like literature, it’s a beautifully structured work of art that keeps it’s own dream logic going through lies and subtext. Of course Teddy can’t be trusted, he’s some corrupt cop using Leonard to his own ends. And that’s what I love about this movie, even the truth comes with it’s own hazards. This neo-noir is one of my favorite films of all time from the editing, cinematography, acting, style, vision, planning, and execution are all done so wonderfully that I wonder how it’s been so ignored.
After all of the story has been told there is still the underlying problem of identity, who is Leonard Shelby. He was an Insurance Investigator from San Francisco, now he’s some crime fighting drifter righting wrongs wherever he ends up. Joan Didion wrote “People tell themselves stories in order to live.” I believe that to be true of Leonard Shelby, I believe he lives his own truth regardless of what the outside world shows him to be true. And therein lies the conceit of his condition. Does Leonard really suffer from short term memory loss? Or is that his excuse, his justification, his identity that he fools himself into believing such an outrageous narrative? Only a potentially brain damaged individual could believe such a thing, but that’s in his past isn’t it? This film is incredible and it still continues to floor me every time I watch.