Leonard (Guy Pearce) lives in the present tense. Unable to create new memories after suffering a head injury, he’s left with fading images of his life before that point in time, and scrambles to make sense of events as they happen to him, moment by moment. Because he can’t keep an idea in his head for more than a couple of minutes, Leonard writes notes to himself everywhere—on scraps of paper, on the backs of the Polaroids he takes incessantly, and on his body as tattoos—in hopes that when he looks at them, he’ll know what he was telling himself. Trouble is, he tends not to remember what all these notes mean.
The relationship between meaning and memory is a complex one that most of us take for granted—when you remember something, like a face or an event, you also have for it a context and a sense of how it connects to other faces and events in your past experience. But what if you didn’t have that context? How would you know which face is relevant to you? Which event has consequences? Christopher Nolan’s Memento examines these questions and, in lieu of answers, poses still more questions.
Imagine that, like Leonard, you find yourself in mid-run, with a scary-looking guy with a gun running nearby, and you have to figure out who’s chasing whom. In practical terms, it only takes a second to realize that he’s chasing you, because he fires his gun at you and heads your way. But that instant of not knowing is terrifying, unhinging, and not a little absurd. Memento offers versions of this instant again and again, situating you alongside Leonard, who can’t ever know, for sure, what any given instant means for him. The film launches you repeatedly into Leonard’s moment-to-moment existence by beginning again and again, as if it hasn’t begun before. In this way, the movie, a post-nearly-neo-noir written and directed by Nolan and based on a short story by his brother Jonathan, emulates Leonard’s own struggle to make sense of what’s happening to and around him. To complicate matters further, and to make your experience even more like Leonard’s, Memento works its narrative backwards—it opens with the last scene in the film, focused on a photo of a dead man whom Leonard has just shot, and leads you step by dicey step through the fragmented mess that has been his recent experience.
For starters, you learn a series of facts. Or maybe they’re only facts according to Leonard. Fact one: he used to be an insurance investigator, a good one. In flashbacks to this time (recalled by Leonard, so consider your source), he’s flinty and sure of himself, you know, like Fred McMurray’s Walter Neff, in Double Indemnity. Fact two: he was injured while trying to defend his wife, who was raped and murdered in their bathroom. Fact three: now he wants revenge against the man (or men) who killed his wife and ruined his life, but he doesn’t know who or where they are. Actually, he doesn’t even know if they exist, or if his memory of the assault is accurate. But Leonard proceeds as if he does know, as if he has a sure motivation and a rational plan. And that is what makes him much like you.
Memento‘s genius lies in just such solicitations to recognize and sympathize with Leonard, to think that maybe his dire designs have a rationale. At once disturbing and titillating, Memento is quite unlike the usual filmic experience, leading you to the conclusion you’ve already seen—the image of the bloody dead guy, whose name, you discover, is Teddy (Joe Pantoliano)—but never fully explaining each step along the way. Slowly, you start to follow the bizarre logic that drives Leonard, but that doesn’t make it any easier to like him or even to think he’s got grounds for what he’s doing. For a long while, you’re struggling as much as Leonard does, to create a coherent narrative out of all the pieces you confront. On Teddy’s photo, Leonard has scrawled, “Don’t believe his lies.” Okay. That seems clear enough. But then, you find out that Leonard got this idea that Teddy tells lies from a bartender, Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), who has befriended him for no apparent reason. He has written on the back of her photo, “She will help you out of pity,” because she has also “lost someone,” but as the pieces of her story come together, she looks increasingly suspicious as well—and you see some things that Leonard doesn’t see. Or more accurately, you can remember things that Leonard can’t, from scene to scene. And so, you might think that she’s using Leonard for her own vengeance scheme. Then again, you’re passing judgment based on incomplete and not entirely trustworthy information, aren’t you?
The most unnerving effect of Memento‘s fragmentations and dislocations is this sense of doubt. At first, you’re putting the narrative together, much as you would for any film that’s slightly offbeat. But then you realize that you can’t trust your own assumptions or reading abilities any more than Leonard can trust his. This is a man who writes his information on his body—brief, numbered maybe-facts on his wrists and thighs (the killer’s driver’s license number) and full, more certain sentences across his chest and torso (“John G. raped and murdered my wife”). The more of these scraps of ideas you see, the more you’re apt to doubt them, because they don’t really fit together.
The one note that comes back again and again is the instruction, inked on Leonard’s hand, to “Remember Sammy Jankis,” a man at the center of an insurance case Leonard once investigated. Sammy (played in flashbacks by glassy-eyed Stephen Tobolowski) also lost his short-term memory and now, in Leonard’s present-tense recollection of his story, stands as the model for what not to do. Or maybe he’s the model of what to do. Leonard can remember Sammy’s story because he knew it before his “accident,” but really, he cannot fathom what it means. That’s up to you. Likewise, you’re left with the pieces of this poor guy’s woeful tale, intercut with Leonard’s own, and wonder what either has to do with what you’re doing here and now, watching all this confusion and retaliation—against what? well, that’s an open question.
Memento isn’t about character development or change—Leonard is incapable of either. Losing meaning is a frightening experience, because you’re so used to thinking you have it, that your identity remains constant from moment to moment, that your memory is who you are. If you have no memory, then who are you? Such questions may ultimately be more tedious than profound: you need to put on your pants and get out the door each day, whether or not you’re sure of how one moment connects to the next. But the most important connection here is not between moments, between plot turns or characters. It’s between you and Leonard. By the time he says, at film’s end (or is it the beginning?), that he is “no different” from you, it’s more than a little chilling to recognize even the bit of truth he’s speaking.