Memento explained: a detailed analysis of plot and meaning

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This article reveals the plot and the detailed explanation of Christopher Nolan’s Memento, explaining its meaning and storyline. It is therefore recommended to read it after watching the movie in order not to ruin your viewing experience.

“I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there. Do I believe the world’s still there? Is it still out there? … Yeah. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different…

Now… where was I?”

Experiencing devastating traumas can lead to disintegrated states of mind to such an extent that the subject is forced to construct an alternative reality to bear the pain and the sense of guilt. This topic has been successfully treated in some of the most influential filmmakers’ movies of our time, often using the film genre that best suits the theme – the noir – giving birth to some of the most successful reinterpretations of this genre. Some of the best known examples include the great period drama Shutter Island by Martin Scorsese and the surrealist masterpiece Mulholland Drive by David Lynch.

In 2000 it’s Christopher Nolan’s turn with his second movie Memento, freely adapted from the short story Memento Mori written few years earlier by his younger brother Jonathan – showrunner for acclaimed TV series as Westworld and Person of Interest. Free from all the technical limitations of his first feature film Following – a remarkable debut which contains elements that will become increasingly relevant in his following movies – and having quite a remarkable budget of nine million dollars despite the magnitude that it will reach over the next few years, twenty-nine years old Nolan has directed a cynical and rigorous neo-noir which has its main strength in turning its fabula and syuzhet around. A brilliant example of montage breaks up the story into small fragments all mixed up in a particular order: first scene, last scene, second scene, penultimate scene, until you get to the end of the movie showing the events happening at the center of the plot and revealing its before-and-after perspective. A brilliant and winning idea, considering its – absolutely deserved – status of cult it has acquired nowadays and the fact it has given rise to a long-standing debate between fans despite nearly twenty years after its first screening at the Venice Film Festival, 2000.

Leonard “Lenny” Shelby is a broken man. “The Ten-Minute Man” as named in Jonathan Nolan’s story. The last thing Lenny can remember is his wife’s face after they have been attacked by two assaulter in their apartment. Despite his wife survives that assault Lenny, who manages to kill one of the aggressors, develops a severe brain injury that leads him to suffer from anterograde amnesia: anything happening to him doesn’t stick in his mind for more than a few minutes. His wife – she suffers from diabetes – tries any possible solution to restore his consciousness, until one day she desperately asks him to give her three insulin shots in quick succession. Lenny is unable to even become aware that he himself has caused his wife’s death because something has broken inside his mind: as Andrew Laeddis and Diane Selwyn, Lenny’s mind creates the false memory of the accountant Sammy Jankis, a man suffering from anterograde amnesia who has unwittingly killed his wife with insulin, driven by the goal of neutralizing guilt after lying but meanwhile the “real” Lenny’s mental illness turns into methodical madness.

Lenny turns into a modern Philip Marlowe looking for John G, the surviving attacker disappeared into thin air who Lenny believes is responsible for his wife’s death, and he uses an orderly system of notes, tattoos and polaroid pictures. Aided in this effort by the police officer Teddy who takes over his case taking pity on him, Lenny manages to track down and kill John G but this event fails to impress in his memory and in a very short period of time he is in desperate need to find “John G” again because it’s the only purpose of his existence, in an endless loop. He can’t reconcile himself, he can’t forgive himself as he can’t “remember to forget”.

Teddy tells Lenny there’s plenty of John Gs to find in order to help him, setting him on new criminals’s path to get rid of by providing him clues and even complete police reports from which Lenny deletes all the parts that don’t fit his new reality. Eventually, he begins using Lenny’s disorder to get his dirty work done for him so he tries to persuade him that Jimmy Grantz, a local drug dealer who operates out of the bar and the motel where Lenny lives, is the man he is after. After collecting clues to find Jimmy – in the black and white sequence of the movie – Lenny agrees with Teddy to set a trap for Jimmy in an abandoned building where Teddy has previously contacted him and set up a sale of amphetamines. Jimmy arrives at the meeting place but he finds Lenny there instead, who manages to strangle Jimmy to death. In his final breath he whispers “Sammy” causing Leonard to realise he has killed the wrong John G in a glimpse of clarity and sending him into a tailspin.

As Teddy arrives he reveals his trick to Lenny reminding him of the previous “John Gs” as well as his wife’s murder and the fake Sammy Jankis’ story – actually a man Lenny exposed as a fraud when he was an insurance claims investigator – suggesting that it was Lenny who told the Sammy Jankis’ story to Jimmy in a previous forgotten meeting. However, Teddy goes on to make the biggest mistake revealing to Lenny his real name: John Edward Gamble, John G. At this point, Lenny gets angry with his trusted friend who made him face reality and before his short-term memory would be reset within a few minutes he records Teddy’s license plate number and he decides to continue his hunt.

Placed as the final sequence of the movie this last scene is actually the beginning of the main plot – the one filmed in color. Wearing Jimmy’s clothes and stealing his Jaguar, Lenny finds an address into his jacket pocket. Arriving on the spot, Lenny has now forgotten about his previous actions and he meets Jimmy’s partner Natalie who begins to believe in his story after the initial distrust and she eventually takes advantage of him using Lenny to get rid of Dodd, a criminal having an issue with her to whom Jimmy owed money. In return for doing her a favour Natalie tracks down Teddy’s car license plate number for Lenny and she confirms the name John G. The movie opens / closes with Lenny killing Teddy, his last (maybe) John G.

Based on classic noir narrative patterns yet distorted storyline, Nolan gives the viewers a valuable insight into the protagonist’s mind taking them on a backward journey through a deceptive memory where all characters seem to emerge from the fog. We as spectators are just as lost as Lenny, we don’t know whether we should trust the characters he interacts with or not due to a lack of clues. In addition to this, by changing the order in which the different states occur as Lenny has convinced himself he has solved the case, the viewer is inclined to perceive the protagonist as a brilliant and winning character despite his impaired memory, a certainty that is going to collapse as a house of cards when the filmmaker / magician reveals his trick showing us Lenny for the first time according to an objective perspective: a freak, an eternal loser imprisoned in a fake world full of seemingly infallible notes but actually manipulated as everyone wish – the emblematic final / initial scene when he switches into Jimmy’s clothes.

Compared to the original story where the protagonist is named Earl, Nolan adds in the screenplay all the characters and all the additional vicissitudes all personally rewritten as the framework of the movie. Nevertheless, Memento Mori can provide a useful explanation to understand the importance both Nolan and his brother place on our perception of time as the protagonist is caught in an infinite loop. Trough its fifteen pages the story – which alternates a fragmented narrative structure yet chronologically correct with a inner dialogue sequence – deals with the protagonist Earl – we see him getting old – searching for the murderer over the years. Its ending suggests his hunt will start over again.

Nolan’s first partnership with the cinematographer Wally Pfister – who makes a great job both in the black&white and the color scene followed by the astonishing colors transition in the ending sequence – and with the composer David Julyan (Insomnia, The Prestige), Memento only took twenty-five days to shoot. Nolan’s first choice for the role of Leonard was Alec Baldwin but he also considered some big-name actors like Brad Pitt, Charlie Sheen and Aaron Eckhart and he eventually decided to stage Guy Pearce, who was originally two hundred thirty pounds before the movie was made and lost all of the weight extremely fast; Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano had just starred in The Matrix. Nolan originally wanted Paranoid Android by Radiohead to play during the end credits but felt that the rights were too expensive, so he used David Bowie’s Something In The Air. In 2015 AMBI Pictures, run by film producers Andrea Iervolino and Monika Bacardi, acquired the rights and announced it will finance and produce the movie’s remake but since then, there has been no further development news.

Memento – gloomy, alienating, hopeless – represents the unsurpassed pinnacle of the sparkling career of one of the most acclaimed directors of our time: in 2017 the US Library of Congress added this movie to the National Film Registry. It’s a movie anyone passionate about film noir and cinema in general should see, a must-see masterpiece.

Article translated from here by Sara D’Ettorre

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