Memento was the first required film for this class that I did not enjoy. Clearly, the uniquely edited sequence of the movie make it worthy to watch when studying film, but I thought it was a little too hard to follow. I also thought it was deeply depressing. I do not mind watching depressing movies sometimes, but this was a little too tragic for my taste.
The film follows Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) as he searches for the man who raped and murdered his wife. It is very much a film noir style movie that centers around the vengeance of a murdered loved one. The only problem with finding his wife’s killer is that Leonard suffers from a “condition.” He has short-term memory loss and can’t remember anything after his wife dying. His memory resets every few minutes, so he communicates with himself through Polaroid pictures and tattoos in order to keep his investigation on track. He is helped throughout the film by a cop named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss).
The most interesting part of Memento is the way that the movie is edited, particularly its sequence. Director Christopher Nolan has been known to use unique sequencing in his movies, and this one was no exception. The movie is really split into two kinds of scenes–one in chronological order, one in reverse chronological order–that come together at the end.
The colored part of the movie is out of chronological order. In a way, it is in reverse. The first scenes are actually the end of the story, and they move backwards. The scenes are connected by certain repeated lines and moments. Where the first scene starts, the next scene ends. The colored parts follow Leonard as he finds his wife’s killer, John G., and kills him. These reverse sequence scenes are narrated by Leonard’s inner monologue. He always asks himself where he is, and he walks himself through the room, letting us know that his memory is restarting. For example, one scene opens with Leonard sitting on a toilet with a bottle of alcohol in his hand. He says to himself, “I don’t feel drunk.” He assumes it is his hotel room, and decides to take a shower. It turns out that the real tenant of the room comes home and the two men struggle until Leonard figures out (through looking at his photos) why his is there and beats and ties up the man. The next scene opens with Leonard running from the same man and deciding to ambush him in his apartment. He breaks in, finds a weapon (the alcohol bottle) and hides in the bathroom. Suddenly, his memory resents and he tells himself, “I don’t feel drunk.”
In between each colored scene is a black and white scene. These scenes are actually in chronological order. The chronological scenes are narrated by Leonard’s phone conversation with an unknown person. He is walking us through the story of Sammy Jenkis (Stephen Tobolowsky), who has a similar condition to him. In the story, Sammy Jenkis’s wife wants him to snap out of his mental state. She tests him by having him repeatedly inject her with insulin. Her hope is that, because he loves her, he will remember what is happening in order to save her. Sammy Jenkis unknowingly puts his wife in an irreversible comma. He is put in a mental institution, but the interesting thing is that we see a flash of Leonard replacing Sammy Jenkis at the mental institution at the end of one of the scenes. This gets explained later in the movie. In these black and white scenes, Leonard also walks through his wife’s murder investigation with the person on the phone. Eventually, we find out that the person on the phone is Teddy, and the two sequences come together at the end.
The use of the reverse chronological scenes mixed with scenes that are in order has a specific function. It makes us go back and try to remember what happened previously and connect it to what is happening now. Of course, most people loose track and end up very confused. In a way, we are as lost watching the film as Leonard is because we have to try to search our memories every time a new scene starts.
The ending of Memento shows us one of the most suprising twist I’ve seen in a movie in a while. We find out that Leonard is actually Sammy Jenkis. His wife survived the attack, and Leonard’s mind fabricated the Sammy Jenkis story to make himself forget what he had done. Not only that, but he has already killed, who the thought was, John G. The man he killed is actually the boyfriend of Natalie, the women that has been helping him. Not only that but because he stole the victims clothes and car, Natalie knew throughout the movie that Leonard was her boyfriend’s killer. At the end of the movie (which is actually the beginning of the out of sequence story) Leonard forgets that his wife’s death has been avenged because he burns the evidence and deliberately sets up Teddy as his wife’s real killer so he can hunt him down.
Even my description of Memento is difficult to follow and understand. It is one of those movies that needs to be watched several times to fully comprehend. Even without connecting every detail, viewers understand the themes presented in the movie–the need to avenge the death of a loved one, the difficulties of suffering from mental illness, the lengths we will go to in order to be happy–and that is really what makes the film good. The details are not as important as the feeling that Memento leaves.