Film/Video/TV Annotations


Memento


MediumFilm
KeywordsDeath and Dying, Diabetes, Disability, Grief, Homicide, Literary Theory, Memory, Mourning, Narrative as Method, Obsession, Rape, Suicide, Time, Trauma
Summary

Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is trying to avenge the rape and murder of his wife. She was, as far as he can recall, killed by the same intruder who injured Leonard’s head, leaving him with "anterograde amnesia": he remembers everything up until the injury but no longer has short term memory. "I can’t make new memories. Everything fades."

Leonard’s single purpose now is to find and kill the person responsible for his wife’s death and his own disability. He remembers this purpose, and the steps in his progress towards it, by keeping annotated Polaroid photographs and tattooing important facts onto his body. At the end of the story--which is the beginning of the film--Leonard kills a man he believes to be the murderer, but who is probably not.

The story is narrated in reverse chronology, beginning with Leonard shooting the suspected killer, in short segments corresponding more or less to the length of Leonard’s ability to remember. These scenes are interspersed with parts of a longer scene that follows regular chronology, shot in black and white, in which Leonard sits in his motel room, talking on the telephone and telling the story of Sammy Jankis, a man he seems to remember from his earlier life as an insurance investigator.

Sammy suffered from anterograde amnesia after a car crash and Leonard dismissed his condition as psychological rather than physical, resulting in the refusal of Sammy’s insurance claim (the company doesn’t cover mental illness). Sammy’s diabetic wife, thinking that if the condition is mental it must also be voluntary, tries to get him to "snap out of it" by testing him in various ways: finally she tricks him into administering her insulin shot over and over until she dies. Sammy ends up institutionalized.

As we piece the story together, we realize that Leonard’s method for keeping track of his revenge plot is inadequate. Because the bits of information that substitute for memory can be manipulated, others are able to use him as an unwitting assassin. We also deduce that the story of Sammy Jankis may in fact be the story of Leonard Shelby, and that perhaps Leonard’s own wife was killed not by a murderer but by Leonard himself, the revenge motivation possibly planted by Teddy (possibly a cop) in order to make of Leonard a very efficient killer.

The story ends (where it begins) with Teddy’s plot turned against him by Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), a mysterious woman who has revenge motives of her own. Leonard takes Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) for the killer and shoots him. Our chilling realization is that Leonard will soon forget he has achieved his objective and again begin looking for someone to kill.

Commentary

The narrative trick of telling the story in reverse is effective in making the audience share the protagonist’s disorientation: at the beginning of each segment, we, like Leonard, do not know what just happened. We only find out later how we got to each point in the story. As a result, the film works not only as an absorbing mystery (Who is Teddy? Did Leonard get the right guy?), but also as a revealing meditation on the relationships between memory, information, and action.

Leonard is able to gather and retain information, by keeping meticulous records, and he is able to marshal that information in the service of the precept he has tattooed on his chest: "John G. raped and killed your wife. Kill him." Without the context for this data however--without the narrative continuity bestowed by ongoing memory--he is unable to make any of the choices we associate with ethical identity. He becomes the object of others’ manipulation.

Warned that his vengeance is pointless, since he will forget he has achieved it, Leonard argues that memory is unreliable in any case, and that there are external reasons for his action: "My wife deserves vengeance. It doesn’t matter whether I know about it. Just because there are things I don’t remember: doesn’t make my actions meaningless. The world doesn’t just disappear when you close your eyes, does it?" The point of the film, ominously, seems to be just that: without a constructed narrative, a context for each moment in our lives, the world, and our meaningful identity within it, are in grave danger of disappearing.

A moving aspect of Leonard’s condition is his inability to recover from the loss of his wife, or even to mourn. He is trapped in the moment of loss, since he is unable to measure time passing from that moment to the present. His grief remains as it was on the day of her death. As he puts it: "I want time to pass, but it won’t. How can I heal if I can’t feel time?"

This film offers a thought-provoking view of the role of memory and therefore of narrative continuity in the construction of identity and the determination of action, as well as a rich subtext on the difference, or absence of difference, between the somatic and the psychological in neurological and mental illnesses. A useful companion text might be "The Lost Mariner," Oliver Sacks’s account of Jimmie G, a patient with the same kind of memory loss resulting from Korsakov’s Syndrome (see The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, in this data base). (It may be a deliberate allusion that the suspected killer in Memento is called "John G or Jimmie G . . . ")

DirectorChristopher Nolan
Leading ActorsCarrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Guy Pearce
StudioI Remember; Newmarket
Year2001
Color/BWColor
Running Time116 minutes
Video SourceSummit Entertainment
MiscellaneousThis is an independent, not a studio, production. Screenplay by Christopher Nolan, based on the short story "Memento Mori" by Jonathan Nolan (Christopher Nolan’s brother), published in Esquire. The screenplay is published in: Christopher Nolan. Memento
Annotated by Belling, Catherine
Date of Entry 12/17/01
Last Revised 09/01/06