3P Reviews

You Are More Than Your Memories — 3P Reviews: Memento

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The mind is a fickle thing. Within it is almost everything we are — our thoughts, our personality, our potential, our perceptions. Holding all of the intangibles of a person is memory, both that of the person living their life and of the people around them. Writing systems and art were invented in part as a way to preserve the memory beyond what living people could achieve. But memory is fissile, harder to hold together than to break apart, and sooner or later, it fails. For some of us, our memory fails sooner than for others, and in bits and pieces. What does that mean for your sense of self? When your memory disappears, do you go with it? When all trace of you has worn away, when there are none left to mourn? Maybe, eventually. But until then, it works the other way, too; as long as you breathe, you’re still alive.

Memento mori: remember your death. That’s what this film is about.

3P Reviews Series: Memento

 

Spoilers: OH YES

Audience Assumptions: None

 

Part One: The Insulin

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I feel like Memento is one of those films that subtly reveals who you are when you watch it. Case in point, on my first viewing, back when I was thirteen or so, I was unsettled by the ending. I didn’t like that how it lied to me. I felt cheated. I was more willing to swallow the events I had been assuming from the start rather than take the time to accept new ones. I thought Leonard was fully justified in his actions, even knowing as I did that they would eventually lead to the death of a scummy but technically innocent man. As they had many times in the character’s past.Memento is one of those films that subtly reveals who you are when you watch it. Case in point, on my first viewing, back when I was thirteen or so, I was unsettled by the ending. I didn’t like that how it lied to me. I felt cheated. I was more willing to swallow the events I had been assuming from the start rather than take the time to accept new ones. I thought Leonard was fully justified in his actions, even knowing as I did that they would eventually lead to the death of a scummy but technically innocent man. As they had many times in the character’s past.

That’s what I love about this movie, though; it leaves you unmoored, unable to grasp a firm standing for what you should think of the characters or the scenario or even the story. It gets you inside the head of the main character more than perhaps any other film. It makes you contemplate, deeply, what it’s like to live with anterograde amnesia and how, even if you aren’t wrapped up in a neo-noir thriller plot to catch a murderer, your own state of mind can skew your understanding of your surroundings and yourself.

Memento is a Christopher Nolan film. It is the Christopher Nolan film, in many ways. It had a larger team of people behind it of course, with Wally Pfister and Dody Dorn working on cinematogrpahy and editing and, a small but talented group of actors in the core cast, among others — heck, the story is based on a short story written by the director’s brother. But more than any other, this is the movie that put Nolan on the map, and in many ways, it has defined his career. When we talk about Christopher Nolan’s style, we are often talking about the techniques that characterize Memento.

The story has what every good mind-bending story needs — simplicity. A man, Leonard Shelby, seeks revenge on the person who murdered his wife. He tracks the man down to a small desert town and kills him. The story has to be simple because from here, it unfolds. As Leonard goes about his revenge quest, people take advantage of his anterograde amnesia and manipulate him. The story is told partly in reverse with interjected segments of a phone conversation where Leonard explains his condition to an unidentified person. As the reversing plot reveals the path Leonard has taken, the audience becomes aware of the real driver of the story: a mystery about where Leonard got the information that eventually leads him to kill the man.

The answer, and the plot twist? He made it up. The quest is over, and has been for years. Leonard has been chasing his tail this entire time, and like the film, is stuck in a loop where the only thing that matters is the present, where he is always pursuing an unknown murderer.

I tend to dislike plot twists because a lot of narratives, especially films and short fiction, use them in place of depth and development. If a plot twist spoils a film, then there’s a good chance that film wouldn’t have worked without it. Much of the story is weak, only made interesting by the surprise reveal that throws a wrench into the works. In other words, it’s not worth a re-watch once you know the twist. The Sixth Sense is my poster child for films that lean too much on their plot twist.

, though, almost doesn’t need one. It needs an ending and a resolution, but the film would still be an engaging thriller if the plot continued in the direction it seems to be going. Even when you know the twist, the emotional beats, themes, and plot remain cohesive. Unlike in most films with plot twists, even good ones, Memento’s end reveal doesn’t really change anything. Because of the way that it’s filmed, the twist has already happened by the start of the story. Leonard has lived through the plot twist and is carry out the aftermath of it, but as far as his character is concerned, it doesn’t affect him outside of the reveal itself because he can’t remember it and never will. The twist is solely for the sake of the audience as a reflection on the deeper themes of memory and reality, and to re-contextualize Leonard as a character. The plot twist doesn’t matter, and that’s what makes it so interesting.Memento, though, almost doesn’t need one. It needs an ending and a resolution, but the film would still be an engaging thriller if the plot continued in the direction it seems to be going. Even when you know the twist, the emotional beats, themes, and plot remain cohesive. Unlike in most films with plot twists, even good ones, Memento‘s end reveal doesn’t really change anything. Because of the way that it’s filmed, the twist has already happened by the start of the story. Leonard has lived through the plot twist and is carry out the aftermath of it, but as far as his character is concerned, it doesn’t affect him outside of the reveal itself because he can’t remember it and never will. The twist is solely for the sake of the audience as a reflection on the deeper themes of memory and reality, and to re-contextualize Leonard as a character. The plot twist doesn’t matter, and that’s what makes it so interesting.

 

Part Two: Modern Noir and Mental Illness

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Before we really dig into it, I should note what this film is. It’s an artistically-driven thing, so the gimmick of its scenes essentially falling in reverse order might elicit groans from some members of the audience tired of unnecessary pretense. And I get that. There is nothing more boring than a movie that thinks it’s better than its audience. I still have personal gripes about people claiming to not understand Inception, but admittedly, its concept can get squirrelly at times.

I think this film honestly works a bit better in that respect. Much as I love Inception, Memento is probably Nolan’s best film. Because the scenes have to work whether they’re placed in chronological or reverse chronological order, each one is highly structured and can exist on its own independent of much of the rest of the film. Technically, scenes in any film should be like this, but it’s rare for them to have this sort of fluidity. The small cast, limited locations, and narrow timeframe are all essential to telling a story that folds in on itself like this, but they also make it relatively easy to follow. You could sum the film up like this: a man with memory loss tries to figure out who killed his wife, but it eventually turns out he’s gone after the wrong guy. That’s the story, backwards or forwards.Inception, Memento is probably Nolan’s best film. Because the scenes have to work whether they’re placed in chronological or reverse chronological order, each one is highly structured and can exist on its own independent of much of the rest of the film. Technically, scenes in any film should be like this, but it’s rare for them to have this sort of fluidity. The small cast, limited locations, and narrow timeframe are all essential to telling a story that folds in on itself like this, but they also make it relatively easy to follow. You could sum the film up like this: a man with memory loss tries to figure out who killed his wife, but it eventually turns out he’s gone after the wrong guy. That’s the story, backwards or forwards.

Of course, it’s quickly apparent that the film style mirrors the character’s mental state in the way it only tells you pieces of the story at a time. This is the most pretentious part of the film, yet it remains compelling. It turns an action thriller into a mystery as the audience is thrust into the heat of the story and trying to figure out things alongside Leonard. It helps us relate to him, see the world through his eyes. I’m honestly astonished more filmmakers haven’t used similar techniques since its release.

A related note is that Leonard has a disability. Here we start to descend into the depths of the film, because its portrayal is, as with many portrayals, mixed. I can’t speak much about anterograde amnesia, but from what I understand, the film’s portrayal is surprisingly accurate to the symptoms of the condition. Memory loss manifests in different ways for different people, of course, but the inability to make new memories while retaining old ones is a very real thing that some people have to deal with.

However, scientific accuracy aside, portrayal of disability is also dependent on the contextual circumstance within the story. Just because a medical condition is accurate to life doesn’t mean its use in furthering a story is necessarily a positive. While there is certainly something to increasing public awareness of a particular disability, especially one that may be rare, there are far too many disabled characters relegated to the role of villain, miserable wretch, or porcelain doll.

Throughout the film, Leonard is teased and tricked by those around him, sometimes for the sake of humor. Although the protagonist and not an exceptionally violent person, he harms a lot of people, even murdering quite a few. He harms strangers, close friends, and even his wife, all by mistake, and is nearly a brutish lapdog for Teddy to send off after anyone who displeases him. And all of these actions are linked, in some way or another, to his amnesia.

For me, it works. The reason is simple: Leonard is sympathetic. While he does terrible things, the confusion and frustration he feels is likewise felt by the audience. In almost no other film have I been so immediately able to relate to a character so different from myself; from the start, we can see where Leonard is coming from and how his life keeps pushing them through this story. While revenge murder is unlikely a part of any given viewer’s life goals, there’s comfort in knowing that it’s not exactly a part of Leonard’s life goals either. At any given time, he’s a regular person, and he has to be reminded of his purpose through tattoos that litter his skin. Actually, he doesn’t have to be reminded, he just is. The tattoos are there for his own sake, hypothetically, but as the validity of some of their contents come into question, so too does their purpose. Who decided that Leonard should go after the guy who murdered his wife? It doesn’t matter. His tattoos force him down this path, whether he would want them to or not under the circumstances.

Leonard gets kicked around a lot. He has agency, as many protagonists do, but his story is frequently one where his own autonomy is being subdued by malicious external agents. Teddy is the most obvious of these, something of a protagonist himself frequently, but still sleazy and eager to push Leonard. It’s only at the end of the story that Leonard manages to push back and deny Teddy that manipulation, but it comes at the cost of manipulating himself. Leonard is inherently vulnerable, and this makes the audience wary of any external agents.

One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film comes when Natalie, who has seemed Leonard’s closest confidant, steals the pens around her house so she can trick him into going after a guy she doesn’t like. Natalie fulfills the typical Noir role of the femme fatale, the seductress who uses sex to lure the detective to his doom. The archetype comes with unappealing baggage, particularly when used to justify the detective’s violence toward said woman, and I won’t pretend that Memento doesn’t lug that baggage along. I do think it offers Natalie some depth when she pulls through and runs the names for Leonard and later when we learn that Leonard killed her boyfriend, but the film’s real subversion of the archetype comes from how Natalie manipulates Leonard. While she does entice Leonard into consentually dubious sex, the main betrayal comes when we see her use his disability against him. Up until that point, we are made to believe everything Natalie says, with only an illegible scribble to sow doubts. And then, suddenly, a scene we’ve already watched turns horrifying as Natalie gets in a heated debate with Leonard, insulting his wife and belittling him about his disability. Leonard hits her, and, furious, she steals his pens and waits for his memory to evaporate so she can spin a story and get back at him. It’s an ugly scene, and it not only tears apart our preconceived notions of the relationship between these two, it forces us to watch as Leonard falls victim, not only to Natalie, but his own brain. We know the whole time that he’s going to fail, and yet that moment when he loses all memory of the fight still hurts. Not in the least because it’s Natalie doing it.Memento doesn’t lug that baggage along. I do think it offers Natalie some depth when she pulls through and runs the names for Leonard and later when we learn that Leonard killed her boyfriend, but the film’s real subversion of the archetype comes from how Natalie manipulates Leonard. While she does other terrible things to him, the main betrayal comes when we see her use his disability against him. Up until that point, we are made to believe everything Natalie says, with only an illegible scribble to sow doubts. And then, suddenly, a scene we’ve already watched turns horrifying as Natalie gets in a heated debate with Leonard, insulting his wife and belittling him about his disability. Leonard hits her (again, an iffy point given Nolan’s track record with female characters), and, furious, she steals his pens and waits for his memory to evaporate so she can spin a story and get back at him. It’s an ugly scene, and it not only tears apart our preconceived notions of the relationship between these two, it forces us to watch as Leonard falls victim, not only to Natalie, but his own brain. We know the whole time that he’s going to fail, and yet that moment when he loses all memory of the fight still hurts. Not in the least because it’s Natalie doing it.

That’s what the structure of the movie does for the audience: it puts us in Leonard’s head, but in a skewed way. Through the cinematography, the structure, and the editing, we end up seeing the same things Leonard does, experiencing his life and the scattered way he has to piece together disparate information to make sense of his world, the uncanny feeling of repetition, and the dread that comes with realizing he’s read someone wrong. I end up feeling that although the film portrays an exaggerated and rather violent character, it still makes Leonard a nuanced character and shows the way his vices are largely externalized by those keen to exploit his disability for their own gain or entertainment.

 

Part Three: Characterization in Retrospect

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Who is Leonard Shelby? That’s the question posed at the end of the film. Leonard thinks he’s one way, but discovers that his actions have turned him into something different, something he can’t account for. He’s killed people, including people he wasn’t really after. One can’t talk about this film without addressing the ending, and yet the audience follows Leonard through the whole story not necessarily aware that there is a twist. The film works on its own, but the twist changes the way you look at things. Therefore, it’s worth analyzing Leonard at various stages, including what his personality is like at the start of the film, toward the end of the film, and at the very end when he decides to trick himself.

The opening of the film does a quick job establishing its stylistic premise, with a photo of a murdered man captured on an old instant camera dissolving as the scene leading up to it being taken rewinds. We are introduced to Leonard confronting the man in the photo, accusing him a murdering his wife, with the man mocking him in response. The scene ends with the gunshot, and we jump to a new scene with Leonard sitting in a room talking on the phone about himself, his former job, and his outlook on life.

Those early scenes establish Leonard unambiguously as the protagonist. The framing is clearly centered around him rather than Teddy, and the interactions of the two paint Leonard as the traditional antihero and Teddy as the spineless villain common to this sort of action thriller. The performance goes a long way toward making Leonard sympathetic — depicting a character who only knows up to half of what’s going on at any given time, but desperately wants to look decisive, is a tricky feat. I don’t think Guy Pierce gets enough credit for his work in this film. In low-tension situations, he looks hapless and gullible, sometimes to a tragic degree, but when things get serious, he can quickly adjust to the situation and become as decisive as any noir detective. While his competence is a large part of what makes him a compelling character (along with frequent light comedy thrown in to make him relatable), as we eventually realize, it also makes it easy for him to go overboard.

Leonard presents himself as the sort of person who only becomes violent in dire situations. Yes, his ultimate goal is revenge murder, but, at least in his mind, he’s not the sort of person who would go around hurting any random person. He’s consistently reluctant to harm criminals as a hired thug, only willing to go after Dodd when he thinks he’s hurt someone he cares about, and later when he thinks he’s the one being attacked. Leonard seems to have this idea that his life of searching for his wife’s murderer is going to involve getting his hands dirty, but through it all, he’s still a good guy. From Leonard’s perspective, his story is simple. It has to be. He’s the antihero who brushes elbows with the underworld to enact justice, but his heart is always in the right place.

By the end, we know this couldn’t be further from the truth, and for a moment, Leonard does too. Throughout the story, we see Leonard being manipulated into doing things he disagrees with, either through misrepresentation of the circumstances or outright deception. Sometimes the stakes are relatively low and this comes across in a humorous light, such as when Leonard decides to take a shower, mistaking the motel room he’s waiting to ambush Dodd in for his own. Even Leonard seems somewhat aware of this, observing things in his internal monologue with blase lines line, “Ahp, no, he’s chasing me.” This absurdity frequently underlies the frustration he faces with his disorder, as it’s easy for him to misinterpret a dangerous situation as frivolous or vice-versa.

Leonard’s response is usually to try to remain level-headed and trust his instinct. His previous job as an insurance claims investigator made him rely on interpreting facial expressions and body language, so he frequently draws on that experience to assess a situation. However, even with meticulous strategies to deal with his memory loss, as he recounts in the black-and-white sequences, he inevitably ends up in a situation where he has to trust people, and they consistently fail him.

The end of the story gives us a new understanding of who Leonard is, or at least what he’s done. When he realizes he’s gone after someone he knows, Teddy reveals that many of the basic principles upon which he’s formulated his entire system are false, including Sammy Jenkis, the death of his wife, and his revenge quest.

Throughout the greyscale sequences, Leonard has told the story of Sammy Jenkis, a man he met in his former life who had a condition similar to the one he has now. Sammy developed anterograde amnesia in an accident, and to determine the legitimacy of his claim, Leonard devised a test involving electrified objects. According to his background research, even with anterograde amnesia, Sammy should be able to learn which objects to avoid by instinct because conditioned memory involves a different part of the brain. Although Sammy continued to pick up the electrified objects, suggesting conditioning didn’t work on him, Leonard thought Sammy’s apparent recognition of him was a sign that some part of Sammy’s memory still worked. His decision led Sammy’s diabetic wife to test him further in a desperation to “jog his memory,” Eventually culminating in her overdosing on insulin.

Leonard frequently draws upon this story in the present day to figure out his own situation. He feels guilt for his part in the death of Sammy’s wife, and continues to obsess over why Sammy couldn’t learn to avoid the electrified objects. He realizes now that Sammy only pretended to recognize him, something he now does on a regular basis. However, Leonard strongly believes that he has conditioned himself over the years through his routines, using the idea to ground his own reality. (It’s not a coincidence, for instance, that he constantly refers to his disability as a “condition.”)

At the end of the film, Teddy tells him that the Sammy Jenkis story is muddled, and that the real Sammy was a con man who didn’t have a wife. He explains that Leonard is remembering bits and pieces of his own life and projecting them onto Sammy, that his wife survived the attack and she was the one who later died of a self-induced insulin overdose — an overdose he himself delivered. What’s more, Teddy was a cop on Leonard’s case, and the one who started him on this quest. They caught and killed the man responsible for Leonard’s memory loss a long time ago, and Teddy thought it would somehow make things better. However, Leonard continued to have memory loss and continued to think that the man who broke into their house had killed his wife. Teddy then set things up so that Leonard would have another criminal to go after, so that his life would have purpose again.

With this revelation, Leonard’s reality collapses around him. It changes little about his inherent personality — that of a deeply flawed but ultimately empathetic person — but the knowledge that he’s responsible for not only the lives of several potentially innocent people, but also his own wife re-defines the sort of person he would appear to an outsider. That figure is seemingly unrecognizable.

Seemingly. This revelation would be overwhelming to anyone, but there’s something telling in Leonard’s response. He’s understandably upset, confused, even a little afraid of himself. To cope, he needs to do something. That’s the sort of person he is — proactive and always in control, even when he isn’t. Leonard takes a moment to think, knowing his memories will be lost any minute, and this revelation with them. He will be left to Teddy’s whims, guided on a never-ending journey of slaughter and artificial purpose. His solution? Make it his own.

Rather than try to stop the cycle, Leonard continues it, sending his future self after Teddy. Maybe that will eventually stop the cycle. Teddy’s the only other person who knows about it, after all, and Leonard has only made it this far with his help. He can’t know the future just as he can’t know the past. But a cycle’s a cycle, and it’s no coincidence that the film is bracketed only around the events of a single part of the narrative.

The film exists only in the present, its past known only through hearsay, its future uncertain. Funny thing, that.

 

Breakdown Rating:

Characters: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 9
Pacing: 8
Plot: 9
Dialogue: 7
Sum: 40/50

 

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