Memento is an inverted noir, a detective story told backwards in order to thrust the audience into the head of a protagonist who can't define himself in the present, but is forced to trust the conclusions of his former self. The subjective storytelling is intended to make us question familiar notions of revenge and identity
The story centers around a man who wants to avenge the death of his wife, while coping with a rare form of memory loss. Callum plays Dodd, a drug dealer who is being set up by one of his potential victims.
The IMDB page: Memento (2000)
Memento is directed by Christopher Nolan, who is probably best known for writing and directing the new Batman movies. He also directed The Prestige and Insomnia. Carrie-Anne Moss (Matrix) has worked with Callum in Snow Cake, Normal, and was in the Due South episode Juliet is bleeding. Joe Pantoliano (The Sopranos) played Callum's brother in The Life Before This. Guy Pearce starred in L.A. Confidential and The Time Machine.
Cast / Characters:
Callum Keith Rennie
Harriet Sansom Harris
Mark Boone, Junior
Runtime: 113 min
IMDB rating: 8.6/10 (234,398 votes) IMDb TOP 250: currently #29
Keywords: Polaroid, anterograde amnesia, diabetes, tattoo, self deception, obscene finger gesture, nude fight scene, reference to Pocahontas, Gideon Bible, cult favourite
42 wins and 34 nominations, including Academy Awards 2002, nominations for best editing (Dody Dorn) and best writing (Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan), and Golden Globes 2002, nomination for best screenplay (Christopher Nolan); won for best screenplay the BSFC Award, Bram Stoker Award, Critis Choice Award, CFCA Award, Independent Spirit Award, Sierra Award, LAFCA Award, OFCS Award, PFCS Award, SEFCA Award, and TFCA Award.
1817 user comments at IMDb.
Thank Goodness I didn't read the reviews posted before I saw the film!! Most reviews (including ones on this site) will tell you waaayyyy too much about the movie, and that's just plain frustrating. But, as an avid cinephile, I promise not to do the same.
Memento is one of those pictures that will have you sitting in the theater after the lights come up so you can talk to everyone else about what they thought of the movie. This is a highly intelligent and original brain teaser that will have you guessing from beginning to end, and even afterwards. The story and the direction are the best I've seen so far this year, and it deserves all the kudos it gets.
Plainly put, the film tells the story of Leonard Shelby: a man who lost his short term memory in an assault where his wife was raped and murdered; now he's looking for the killer, despite his handicap. Simple as that. You don't need to know anymore.
The film is constructed and told in such a way that you are constantly put into the shoes of Leonard Shelby, beautifully played by Guy Pierce. Carrie-Ann Moss gives an equally mysterious and complex performance. This film is well-made all the way around--from the direction, to the editing, and especially the unique story that is rarely found in Hollywood these days. Four Stars!
This review may have been a little dry on the details, but go see the movie--you'll be thanking me later.
PS: Only go to the official website AFTER you've seen the movie. It too will give too much away. Afterwards, though, go and look at it--it's pretty impressive.
You can find all the comments here.
Callum Quotient: 10%
Pictures (caps by stormymouse):
- Teddy: It's beer o'clock, and I'm buying.
- Lenny: I have to believe in the 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.
- Lenny: Now...where was I?
- Lenny (discovering a beaten up and gagged Dodd in his closet): Who did this to you?
Dodd: You did.
- Lenny (finding out Burt has taken advantage of his condition): So how many rooms am I checked into in this shit-hole?
Burt: Just two. So far.
- Lenny: I'm not a killer. I'm just someone who wanted to make things right. Can't I just let myself forget what you've told me? Can't I just let myself forget what you've made me do. You think I just want another puzzle to solve? Another John G. to look for? You're John G. So you can be my John G... Will I lie to myself to be happy? In your case Teddy... yes I will.
- Lenny: How am I supposed to heal if I can't feel time?
- According to Natalie's note, Dodd is 6'2'' tall.
- The medical condition experienced by Leonard in this film is a real condition called Anterograde Amnesia - the inability to form new memories after damage to the hippocampus. During the 1950s, doctors treated some forms of epilepsy by removing parts of the temporal lobe, resulting in the same memory problems.
- The film took 25 days to shoot (Callum's scenes were shot on days 12, 16 and 17*).
- Alec Baldwin, Brad Pitt and Thomas Jane were considered for the part of Leonard before Guy Pearce got the part.
- The screenplay was based on a short story by Christopher Nolan's brother Jonathan.
Interesting scenes (contain spoilers!):
- Lenny and Teddy finding Dodd in the closet.
- Teddy telling Lenny that he already found and killed the second attacker, which results in Lenny setting up Teddy as the next John G.
- Lenny staying at Natalie's place overnight.
- Sammy Jankis accidentally killing his wife with insuline.
- Lenny's tattoos
- After his wife's death, Sammy is shown sitting in a mental institution. Just before the scene cuts back to Leonard for the third time, Sammy is replaced by Leonard when someone walks in front of him.
- While Leonard is watching TV at Natalie's, a picture of a needle with a person wearing a white v-neck shirt in the background can be seen. In the story of Sammy Jankis, Sammy injects his wife with insulin while he watches TV. Thus, Nolan alludes to the possibility that Sammy Jankis's story is really Leonard's own. Moreover, the white v-neck in the background is the same shirt that Leonard's wife wears in another scene.
Do I want to show this to my parents / friends / co-workers?
one of the best movies of all time
sticks with you for a few days
I fell asleep
I needed booze to survive this
it's about puppies
just some painful tattooing scenes
a few people get beaten up
there are dead bodies everywhere
I don't know, I had my eyes covered most of the time
it made me pee my pants laughing
some funny lines
an occasional twitch of the corner of my mouth
Lenny and Dodd enjoy some bondage play
you can hear Dodd take a leak
just some kittens playing
not really worth mentioning
a prostitute has to perform kinky stuff
a woman gets raped
I don't know, I still had my eyes covered
he farts rainbows and poops butterflies
raises money for the Salvation Army
if you look closely, you can see horns, hooves, and a tail
How many people does he kill?
I lost count
just a few quirks
pops the occasional Xanax
bring the straightjacket
I spontaneously ovulated watching him
*blows steam through nostrils*
not exactly hard on the eyes
he's been sexier
Burt was hotter than him
he clearly enjoyed wrestling Lenny in the bathroom
he was subconciously torn between Lenny and Teddy
he only interacts with men
we'll never know
straight as a ruler
Does he die?
You really want to know? Are you sure? Really sure? Well, then. (highlight to read)
::So not dead!::
Everything you wanted to know about "Memento"
A critic dissects the most complex -- and controversial -- film of the year.
By Andy Klein
As the usual string of expensive summer blockbusters unspools, with its unpredictable array of commercial triumphs ("The Mummy Returns") and disappointments ("Pearl Harbor"), it should be heartening to film fans that a classic sleeper can still find room in a marketplace filled with bloated extravaganzas nurtured by gray-suited greedheads.
For a quick spiritual pick-me-up, consider this: On Monday, the per-screen average for writer/director Christopher Nolan's "Memento" -- a challenging art-house noir made for $5 million and released by a novice distributor after no other company would touch it -- was but $2 less than the per-screen average of "Pearl Harbor," a $200 million mediocrity, whose lavish, flag-wrapped premiere probably cost about the same as "Memento's" entire budget.
"Pearl Harbor" was playing on a lot more screens and making a lot more money, of course, but per-screen average is a good indicator of overall audience enthusiasm for a film. "Pearl Harbor" was also midway through its fifth rapidly declining week in release while "Memento" was still hanging in there for its 15th week. More to the point, one film represents a triumph of writing, directing and performance, while the other is a triumph of money, hype and ... and ... more money. The slight possibility that, in a few more weeks, "Memento" could be taking in more in absolute dollars (rather than per-screen dollars) than "Pearl Harbor," despite the full force of the much-vaunted Disney promotional machine, is enough to make one cackle.
Why has "Memento" held on for so long in the most competitive season of the year? For one, the word of mouth has been phenomenal. After three-something months in release, the film even entered the list of top 10 highest-grossing films last month, and it's been resting comfortably just below the top 10 ever since.
And there's no question that this is a film that encourages repeat business: That is, its puzzles are so intriguing and so impenetrable at first viewing that filmgoers are almost forced to go back for a second look if they want to figure out just what the hell was going on. "Memento" is like "The Sixth Sense" and "The Usual Suspects" in that nearly every scene takes on a different meaning once you know where the film is going.
Or should that be "where the film has been"? Unlike "The Sixth Sense" and "The Usual Suspects" -- indeed, unlike almost every other celebrated "puzzle film" in cinematic history -- "Memento's" puzzle can't be undone with a simple declarative explanatory sentence. Its riddles are tangled up in a dizzying series of ways: by an elegant but brain-knotting structure; by an exceedingly unreliable narrator through part of the film; by a postmodern self-referentiality that, unlike most empty examples of the form, thoroughly underscores the film's sobering thematic meditations on memory, knowledge and grief; and by a number of red herrings and misleading clues that seem designed either to distract the audience or to hint at a deeper, second layer of puzzle at work -- or that may, on the other the other hand, simply suggest that, in some respects, the director bit off more than he could chew.
All of the notices about the movie have told us that the story is told in reverse order. We hear that Leonard, played by Guy Pearce ("L.A. Confidential"), kills the murderer of his wife in the film's first scene, and that the film then moves backward from that point, in roughly five-minute increments, to let us see how he tracked the guy down, ending with what is, chronologically, the story's beginning.
It turns out that this is a substantial oversimplification of the movie's structure -- and that's just one of the surprises that unfolds once you look at the film closely. Some have found the film daunting, and some critics panned it. They're entitled to their opinion, but many of the negative reviews make it plain that the critics didn't quite grasp what Nolan was doing. It's heartening, however, that most critics at the country's major papers understood that the film has immense thought behind it, both technically and thematically. Still, given the way the film business works, critics usually have only one chance to see the film and have to dash out a review before deadline, so even many of the positive reviews couldn't begin to chart the film's depths.
Yet, in Web communities, critics and film fans have discussed "Memento's" structure and meaning without letup. I thought I would take the time to get to the bottom of some of its mysteries. I'm going to attempt to peel away a few layers of this prickly artichoke of a movie.
What follows is an explication for those who have seen the film -- if you haven't seen it, beware, because I'm going to discuss the plot and its revelations in detail.
Not everyone may wish to go quite as far as I have -- four theatrical viewings, three of them with copious note taking; a fifth viewing on videotape, with lots of whipping back and forth to check for differences in "repeated" shots, and slo-mo attention to quick-cut subliminal moments; reading the published script and comparing it to the film; reading the short story, "Memento Mori," written by Nolan's brother Jonathan and credited as the film's source; and a few trips through www.otnemem.com, the film's official Web site, also by Jonathan Nolan. More than anything, I'm grateful to everyone who posted ideas about "Memento" in the movie conference of the Well -- you know, "America's pioneering online community, see www.well.com" -- a whole gang of enthusiastic, contentious, brilliant, pigheaded and articulate fans, who have more than once opened up for me some movie that I simply did not get.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
As I mentioned above, asserting that "Memento" is a tale told backward is actually superficial -- even misleading. Nolan has in fact done something more complicated and way more clever than that. The shocking opening credit sequence, in which Leonard kills a corrupt cop named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano, the ubiquitous master of sleazebag characters, who played Ralphie on "The Sopranos" this year), is the only scene that literally runs backward: In it, we see a Polaroid photo undevelop, a bullet fly back up the barrel of a gun and Teddy come back to life briefly "after" the sound of the shot.
This scene, which is in color, is immediately followed by a black-and-white bit in which we see Leonard, in an anonymous motel room, explaining a little about his circumstances in voice-over. The next extended scene, back to color, finds Leonard meeting Teddy at his motel and then traveling to an abandoned building, whereupon we see Leonard shoot Teddy again. (This time it's even more disturbing.)
The movie then proceeds, alternating black-and-white and color sequences. The main narrative of the story is the backward, color one. We stumble back in increments, and meet "new" characters -- Teddy; a classic noir moll, Natalie; her boyfriend Jimmy; and a drug dealer named Dodd -- each scene stepping back to put the previous one a bit better in context and providing a lot of shocks, jokes and horrors along the way. And in between each we see Leonard back in his hotel room, in black and white, talking on the phone and telling an oddly parallel story.
Here's what we figure out as we go: Leonard Shelby (Pearce) is a former insurance investigator. In his previous life, intruders rape and kill his wife one night. He kills one of them, but the other bonks him on the head and gets away. The injury leaves him suffering from a condition called anterograde amnesia, which means that he can't create new long-term memories. Leonard can remember everything prior to the accident, since his old long-term memories are still intact; but his current attention span lasts roughly 15 minutes (and even less when he's stressed or distracted), and in no case can any of these current memories be permanently implanted in his brain.
Since he can't experience the passage of time, his wife's death is always fresh to him; and so he is passionately determined to find the remaining intruder and kill him. He reminds himself of what he's doing through a series of notes, a pocketful of Polaroid snapshots with helpful information written on them and (for really important stuff) tattoos. We see that he's developed a number of clues to the killer's identity, each of these burned onto his body. The killer's name is John or James and his last name begins with a "G." He's a drug dealer; Leonard even has the killer's license-plate number. As the movie lurches backward, we see how and where he gleans each piece of the puzzle.
At the same time, the black-and-white scenes, which run in forward order, find Leonard in his hotel room talking on the phone. In these sequences, Leonard tells that parallel tale, illustrated for us with visual "flashbacks." As an insurance investigator, Leonard had a curious case: a man, Sammy Jankis, who had an accident and wound up with, yes, anterograde amnesia. Leonard investigates and ruthlessly denies the man's medical claim on the grounds that it was a mental problem and not a physical one.
But Sammy's wife can't deal with the condition: She doesn't quite understand Leonard's ruling and think it means Sammy is in a sense faking. She suffers from diabetes, and it's Sammy's job to deliver her insulin shots. So taking advantage of Sammy's memory problem, and knowing that her husband loves her and wouldn't do anything to hurt her, she asks him to give her three or four insulin shots in quick succession. In doing so, she has the satisfaction, as she sinks into an irreparable coma, of proving to herself that his condition must be real.
But it's important to remember that this Gothic noir is dribbled out to us, largely in voice-over, in short black-and-white scenes in chronological order that alternate with the much more kinetic and confusing main backward story line, which is told in color.
The first of the film's cosmic jokes is revealed in the final color scene (which is of course the first scene chronologically of the color story). We see Leonard kill Jimmy, who we know is Natalie's boyfriend; with this act, Leonard thinks he's killed the man who killed his wife. But then Teddy appears to articulate something we're just beginning to understand: Leonard has already tracked down his wife's killer: He just doesn't remember it. It's one of "Memento's" delicious ironies that the avenging murder we've already seen Leonard accomplish is different from the one Teddy's talking about, but the net effect is the same: to give us a sudden and monstrous realization of Leonard's sanguinary condition.
Teddy even shows Leonard a Polaroid of Leonard, bloodied but beamingly happy, pointing proudly to an empty, untattooed spot on his breast, where we know he wants to imprint the news that he finally avenged his wife's death. Teddy says he'd taken the photo right after the deed to give Leonard evidence that he'd achieved his desired revenge.
Teddy explains to Leonard that he has manipulated Leonard to kill Jimmy and possibly several other similarly loathsome bottom feeders before that. He says something to the effect that it was "to give you something to live for"; of course, Teddy also has to admit that his own motivation had a little bit to do with the $200,000 in drug money stashed in the trunk of Jimmy's Jaguar.
Leonard gets angry, and Teddy, apparently frustrated by his lack of memory, hits him hard with some uncomfortable truths: Leonard's wife hadn't even died, Teddy tells Leonard. She actually survived the assault. Leonard himself had killed her, by administering insulin shots. The Sammy Jankis business is a dreamy conflation of a real story with events from Leonard's own marriage, events so horrifying and guilt-causing that Leonard has had to project them onto someone else -- poor, hapless Sammy Jankis.
This astonishing scene at once solves one part of the movie's puzzle but creates a new one in its place. For the first, we understand that Nolan has upended the conventions of the film noir, in which a flawed hero tries to find some measure of justice in an unjust world. Leonard has suddenly become an Everyman in a potentially infinite purgatory, blindly trying to revenge an act that has already been avenged, and finding himself manipulated, over and over, by people who would use a splendidly configured avenger for their own ends. (It has been hinted along the way that even Teddy's death may be the handiwork of another manipulator, with a few hints pointing at Natalie as the possible perpetrator.)
Nolan lets us bask in this revelation for all of a minute before unleashing another cosmic joke.
Leonard, having learned this, struggles to deal with it. He knows he won't be able to remember what Teddy is telling him. So he empties his gun, to fool himself into thinking he hadn't used it. He burns the bloody and triumphant photo of himself. He pulls out a Polaroid of Teddy and writes on it: "DON'T BELIEVE HIS LIES"; and he copies down Teddy's license-plate number. He drives off to have the number tattooed on his leg as a clue to help himself track down the killer later. In effect, he turns himself into a time bomb, ready to go off when, at a period sometime in the future that he won't be able to appreciate fully, he will finally "solve" his wife's murder again, and wreak vengeance on Teddy.
In the end, "Memento" rights itself, and the wronged will somehow be avenged, in a corrupt way that is the only way to achieve justice in a corrupt world.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Once you see "Memento" a couple of times, you figure out the devilish scheme Nolan has constructed. Here's how I think it works. If we give letters to the backward color scenes and numbers to the monochrome scenes, then what Nolan presents us with is this:
Credits, 1, V, 2, U, 3, T, 4, S, 5, R, 6, Q ... all the way to 20, C, 21, B, and, finally, a scene I'm going to call 22/A, for reasons I'll explain in a minute.
What is beautifully clever here is that black-and-white scene 22, the last sequence in the film, almost imperceptibly slips into color and, in an almost vertiginous intellectual loop, becomes (in real-world order) scene A, the first of the color scenes: This then serves as the link between the forward progression of black-and-white material and the backwardly presented color stuff.
Even neater is that Nolan shoots this in such a way that very few viewers notice the switchover: Leonard enters a dark building; after some crucial action, he takes a Polaroid; as he shakes the photo and the Polaroid's color image fades in, so does the color of the entire scene.
So, if you want to look at the story as it would actually transpire chronologically, rather than in the disjointed way Nolan presents it -- oh, will this ever be fun to do on DVD! -- you would watch the black-and-white scenes in the same order (1 to 21), followed by the black-and-white/color transition scene (22/A). You would then have to watch the remaining color scenes in reverse order, from B up to V, finishing with the opening credit sequence, in which we see Teddy meet his maker at Leonard's hands:
1, 2, 3 ,4 ,5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22/A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V.
Reading the film this way, here's what happens in real-world chronology. While things may seem confusing when you first watch the film, Nolan has been very careful to make sure that, when reassembled, everything in the main part of the film -- everyone's behavior and motivations -- makes perfect sense.
Leonard has been sitting around room 21 at the Discount Inn, poring over police files, trying to locate his wife's killer. He's talking on the phone, explaining his condition to someone on the phone. He relates the story of Sammy Jankis. Then he gets paranoid and hangs up the phone. But the person on the phone is persistent, even slipping notes under his door. The motel clerk finally tells him there's a guy, a cop, waiting in the lobby for him. Leonard relents and goes out to meet him. It's Teddy. We now understand that this is all a routine that Teddy has undergone with Leonard many times before.
Teddy's in the midst of a manipulative plan to have Leonard kill Jimmy Grantz, a local drug dealer. He gives Leonard the address of an abandoned building where Jimmy, who Teddy claims is the murderer Leonard is looking for, is due to arrive. Leonard, wearing blue jeans and driving a pickup, drives off, with Teddy following a few minutes behind.
At the building, Leonard kills Jimmy. He switches into Jimmy's clothes and takes his car keys. Teddy arrives and throws water on Leonard's triumph: You've already tracked down your wife's killers, he tells him; you just forgot. There's no such person as Sammy Jankis. Leonard's a mental case, Teddy tells him frankly. Teddy wants the $200,000 that he knows is in Jimmy's trunk.
The pissed-off Leonard decides to manipulate himself, setting up Teddy as his next suspect; he writes himself a note, identifying Teddy's license-plate number as belonging to his wife's killer. Leonard drives to the nearest tattoo parlor to get the number tattooed on his thigh. Teddy follows him there and tries to get Jimmy's car keys from him. (He wants that two hundred grand in the trunk.)
Leonard sneaks away, still wearing Jimmy's threads; by now he has no idea when or where he got these clothes or this spiffy car. But he finds a note in Jimmy's pocket and, assuming it's meant for him, he heads for Ferdy's bar to meet Jimmy's girlfriend, Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss). Natalie sees the car pull up and is surprised that the driver isn't Jimmy. Leonard enters the bar. Natalie's heard of a guy with Leonard's condition hanging around. After testing his disability, in an unappetizing fashion, she's persuaded that he's is on the level, and takes him to her house.
After he watches TV and consults his notes for a few hours, Natalie returns. She surreptitiously hides all the pens and pencils in the room and then starts insulting Leonard, provoking him until he punches her. While Leonard desperately searches for some way to write a note to himself about what has just happened, Natalie goes outside, sits in her car and smirks. After a few minutes, she slams the car door, knocking Leonard's concentration off track, and reenters, crying about how someone named Dodd has beaten her up.
Moved, Leonard agrees to defend her from this supposed batterer. She writes a description of Dodd for him. He gets in the car to go after Dodd, but is immediately distracted: Teddy is waiting for him in the car. Teddy tells him not to trust Natalie and suggests that he stay elsewhere. He recommends the Discount Inn. Leonard has now forgotten about the Dodd business and, more amusingly, has also forgotten that he's already checked in at the Discount Inn, in room 21. Friendly, greedy desk clerk Burt gladly rents him room 304 as well.
Leonard sets up shop in 304 and calls an escort service for a hooker. He has her try to re-create the scene from the night he and his wife were attacked. He discharges her and drives to a trashy construction site, where he ruminates about his marriage and burns some of his wife's belongings. He stays there all night. As he leaves the construction site in the morning, Jimmy's car is spotted by Dodd -- a drug dealer who was Jimmy's boss. Wanting to know what's become of Jimmy -- and the money he was carrying -- Dodd gives chase.
Leonard slips away and goes to Dodd's motel room -- Natalie had given him the address -- and waits for Dodd to arrive. But he forgets where he is and why, assuming it's his own motel room. When Dodd shows up, Leonard mistakes him for an intruder and beats him up and tosses him in a closet. Desperate, he calls the only phone number he can find -- Teddy's. Teddy comes over and together they send Dodd packing. Teddy again makes efforts to get access to the keys to Jimmy's car.
Knowing from his notes that his run-in with Dodd had something to do with Natalie, the agitated Leonard goes back to her place, demanding an explanation. She placates him, agrees to help him identify the owner of the license-plate number on his thigh and takes him to bed. The next morning, they agree to meet for lunch, after Natalie has had a chance to look up the license number. Leonard forgets to take his motel key and leaves, but Teddy is waiting for him. They go have lunch, after which Leonard returns to the Discount Inn. Realizing he doesn't have a key, he asks Burt to let him in. Burt takes him to room 21 instead of room 304, and Leonard realizes he's being ripped off. But before Leonard returns to 304, he finds his note about having lunch with Natalie and dashes off to see what info she has for him. After some banter, Natalie gives him the DMV information, fingering Teddy as the killer -- just as Leonard had planned.
He goes back to his room and calls Teddy, telling him to come right over. At the front desk he tells Burt to let him know if Teddy shows up, but Teddy gets there while they're talking. Leonard drives Teddy out to the same location where he killed Jimmy -- having gotten the address from Natalie -- takes him inside the building and shoots him. It's the same shooting that we saw in reverse during the opening credits.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
On this level, "Memento" is a persuasive piece of work -- a seemingly straightforward murder mystery that ends up turning the genre inside out. But what has seized the attention of its fans is yet another level of meaning that Nolan seems to be working on. Throughout, the film features visual hints -- some so brief as to verge on the subliminal -- that call everything else in the film into question.
For one, as Leonard narrates the conclusion of the Sammy Jankis story, we see a serene, extended shot of poor Sammy in an insane asylum. A figure walks across the front of the camera -- and suddenly, for literally a split second of screen time, we see Leonard himself in Sammy's chair. Similarly, as Teddy berates Leonard at the abandoned building, we see shots of Leonard himself administering insulin to his wife's thigh. But a split second later, we see him merely pinching that same thigh -- a "memory" that we have seen before.
In the film's final sequence -- the bravura 22/A -- as Leonard drives around in a frenzy of mental activity, we see a rushed glimpse of him relaxing in bed with his wife -- with the legend "I'VE DONE IT" tattooed on his breast.
These scenes call into question the film's back story -- everything that happens "before" the black-and-white scenes. No matter how jumbled the movie's chronology is, everything I've described in the narrative above is stuff that we in the audience actually see. It may be confusing, and we have good reason to doubt that anyone is ever telling the truth, but we see what we see. We have no reason to doubt the accuracy of what transpires. But the back story is presented to us in flashbacks, flashbacks from the memory of a man with brain damage.
We are told by Leonard -- who, remember, is a less-than-reliable, brain-damaged source of neurological information -- that, in his form of amnesia, his recall of his previous life is left intact. Even if we accept that, there's no reason to believe that "intact" is the same thing as "accurate." This point may be the source of a number of odd, unanswered questions: Leonard has a copy of a police report, but we are given to understand that some pages are missing. Presumably the missing pages would have included the information that Leonard's wife didn't die in the original attack. But who took the pages? And why?
It seems that Teddy's outburst at Leonard in scene 22/A answers all the film's questions. But if what Teddy says about Leonard is true, and if Leonard can remember fully his life before the attacks, why doesn't Leonard remember his wife had diabetes? He says flatly that she didn't. If she didn't, then Teddy's not telling the truth.
And what's the thematic point of the Sammy story in the first place? Is it a hint that Leonard's condition may not be real? As Leonard tells the tale, the crucial point is whether Sammy had suffered physical brain damage or if his affliction was somehow psychological. In the end, has Nolan taken refuge in a new version of that hoary thriller cliché, "It was all a dream"? Are the confusing final scenes just evidence of Leonard's brain synapses misfiring as he sits in the asylum?
On the other hand, what's the point of a good movie about memory if you don't leave a few things up for grabs? As Leonard himself tells Teddy fairly early on, "Memory's unreliable ... Memory's not perfect. It's not even that good. Ask the police; eyewitness testimony is unreliable ... Memory can change the shape of a room or the color of a car. It's an interpretation, not a record. Memories can be changed or distorted, and they're irrelevant if you have the facts." This is the very heart of the film. "Memento" is a movie largely about memory -- the ways in which it defines identity, how it's necessary to determine moral behavior and yet how terribly unreliable it is, despite its crucial role in our experience of the world.
In its own weird way, it's also a tribute to grief. Grief is an emotion largely based on memory, of course. It is one of "Memento's" brilliant tangential themes that relief from grief is dependent on memory as well -- and that is one of the chief hells our unfathomable hero is subjected to. "How am I supposed to heal if I can't feel time?" Leonard asks.
Still, even after so many viewings, after reading the script and discussing the film for months, I haven't been able to come up with the "truth" about what transpired prior to the film's action. Every explanation seems to involve some breach of the apparent "rules" of Leonard's disability -- not merely the rules as he explains them, but the rules as we witness them operating throughout most of the film.
The scene of him and his wife in bed, the triumphant tattoo on his breast, can't be a flashback. We've seen already that he doesn't have the tattoo, so he can't have had it in the past. How can he remember lying in bed with his living wife, with the tattoo "John G. raped and killed my wife" visible on his chest? It has to be a fantasy, which would make sense in the context. He thinks he has just avenged her (or has just set in motion a plan to avenge her). He's visualizing his own sense of satisfaction and peace.
Did Sammy kill his wife with insulin? Or did Leonard? For Leonard to have killed his wife and then have transferred the story onto Sammy (as Teddy claims) would require that Leonard remember an event that happened after his accident. Yes, Leonard has a quick memory flash of injecting his wife, but it's followed by a repetition of an earlier version of the memory, where he was merely pinching her. So, of course, the injection memory is just the other memory distorted by Teddy's suggestion.
Except, several hours later in the chronology -- which is to say earlier in the film -- Leonard, sitting at Natalie's house, has another momentary memory flash of preparing the injection. (It appears to be the exact same shot as before.) Even if the image was a false one, influenced by what Teddy said, how can Leonard still remember it hours later?
Who ends up in the mental hospital? Well, Leonard tells us that Sammy ends up there. But Teddy tells us that Leonard's nuts, and then there's that flash in which we see Leonard himself there. And Jonathan Nolan's authorized Web site -- which apparently counts as part of the official canon -- is unambiguous about Leonard being an escapee from an asylum.
Is there an answer? I don't know. Christopher Nolan claims there is one. In an article in New Times Los Angeles on March 15, Scott Timberg writes: "Nolan, for his part, won't tell. When asked about the film's outcome, he goes on about ambiguity and subjectivity, but insists he knows the movie's Truth -- who's good, who's bad, who can be trusted and who can't -- and insists that close viewing will reveal all."
But, at this point, I no longer believe him. The only way to reconcile everything is to assume huge inconsistencies in the nature of Leonard's disorder. In fact, in real life, such inconsistencies apparently exist, if Oliver Sacks is to be believed. But to build the plot around them without giving us some hints seems like dirty pool.
Still, even if it turns out that Nolan has cheated like a two-bit grifter in fashioning his story, "Memento" remains an extraordinary achievement. Not only has he devised a film that challenges its audience, demanding the sort of attention and thought that Hollywood would never ask of viewers, but he has used his cleverness to stir up questions and feelings about the most basic issues of how we experience reality. In addition to being a puzzle, "Memento" is a philosophical tragedy that considers issues the makers of "Pearl Harbor" could never dream of.
Memento - style and story
Interviewed by David Wood
"Following" (1989) was Christopher Nolan's acclaimed low-budget debut. "Memento" is his next film, based on a story by his brother Jonathan.
"Following" had a fantastic critical response. "Memento" is a much bigger film in every way. Was it a daunting experience?
It's really daunting to go from having total control and doing your own little thing to having a financial responsibility with people watching and so on. But to be honest the process was similar and I actually enjoyed it a lot. It was all the things I thought I was good at doing, namely visualising the film as it goes on, only on a bigger scale.
The film feels very intimate. Was this a mood which you were keen to retain from "Following"?
Definitely. "Memento" seemed like a claustrophobic story even when my brother Jonathan first described it to me. We shot the film in 'Scope with anamorphic lenses because I wanted as clear an image as possible to really put the audience in the lead character's head. Once you start playing with the landscape you feel a lot of texture and a lot of intimacy. And the fact that there are very few wide shots, very few long shots, and no establishing shots at all contribute to this.
The film takes a non-linear approach toward narrative.
Film makers should be able to experiment with narrative without alienating the audience and without creating something that's impenetrable. I actually see myself as a very mainstream film maker and always have. Even though you aren't going to get the answers to all of the questions in the film and it is a kind of unsettling film in lots of ways, if you watch it a couple of times it's pretty much all in there. One of the things I've been most satisfied by the film - after having now watched it with various festival audiences - is that it really lives on in people's heads.
One of the most striking themes of the film is the utter inconsequence of actions and indeed emotions such as revenge and jealousy.
All that stuff was in my brother Jonathan's original story. For me it was such a wedge to open up these questions. Revenge is a particularly interesting concept, especially the notion of whether or not it exists outside of just an abstract idea. What's been interesting about the film is the differing reactions to it. Older people are less comfortable with it because the film sides with the idea that we are pretty much living within our own heads. I think that as people get older that notion becomes more frightening.
Guy Pearce's performance is amazing, as is that of Carrie-Ann Moss. Were these actors that you had in mind when expanded your brother's story?
I try not to have actors in mind when I write because the tendency then is to be influenced by either their last performance or your favourite of their performances. I try and come up with more abstract characters. Later you get to the exciting point where you think, right, "Who can play this role?" In the case of Leonard in "Memento", he could have been played by all manner of actors of different ages. What I was really looking for was somebody extremely talented who could really carry this movie because Leonard is not only in almost every scene, he is also in almost every shot. When I met Guy Pearce, it was very clear that he had an enthusiasm for the project and was extremely meticulous and committed, which he had to be because we shot in 25 days so it was an extraordinary schedule.
How happy was your brother with the film?
He's into it and is pretty proud of what we managed to put together.
To play Dodd, Canadian-raised actor Callum Keith Rennie was cast. Recently featuring in a number of key films from Canada (David Cronenberg's "eXistenZ", Don McKellar's "Last Night", Lynne Stopkewich's "Suspicious River"), Rennie had once before played a drug dealer, in John Dahl's "Unforgettable". "Callum just gave a great audition," says Nolan. "He really made something of the little scene we had him do, being found in the closet. He had the right look, as well. We didn't want to go with anybody wo looked too obviously like a heavy. We shot him, though, to look more imposing."
*From "The Making of Memento" by James Mottram, 2002.
Callum at the Galactica 4 convention on his Memento experience:
It was really quick to shoot. (3 days for him, see above)
“I didn’t understand it when I read it… or when I saw it. But I tell everyone it’s a great movie.”
Chronological plot overview
-- start b/w scenes --
Lenny wakes up in the hotel inn, explains (voice-over) his short term memory loss problem, the system and notes stuff. While he shaves his thigh, the phone rings. Lenny answers the call and begins to explain Sammy's story, who suffered from the same form of amnesia like he does now. Flashbacks to the interview he conducted as an insurance investigator with Sammy on the insurance claim and tests being performed on Sammy. After a flashback of Sammy's desperate wife, the other side ends the call and says to call back later. Lenny prepares to make a tattoo on his thigh: "Fact: access to drugs". The person calls again. Lenny continues talking on the phone. The other side mentions some drug information on the man Lenny is looking for. Lenny checks the police file. It seems that the information fits with the police file. Lenny convinces himself that John G. is a drug dealer and changes "access to drugs" to "drug dealer". Flashback to Sammy's wife asking Lenny about his honest opinion on Sammy. Suddenly Lenny finds the "never answer the phone" tattoo on his arm and ends the call. The other side calls back, Lenny hangs up again and asks front desk Burt to block all phone calls. Burt tells him that a cop has been calling. The mysterious person keeps calling and slips a photo under Lenny's door. The photo shows Lenny covered in blood, yet smiling happily and pointing on his chest. Lenny finally answers the call. Flashback to Sammy's wife testing Sammy for the last time, resulting in a lethal overdose of insuline applied to her by her husband. Lenny continues talking on the phone about information on John G. or James G., who he believes is responsible for his wife's death and his memory problem. He goes down to meet the caller (Officer Gammell), and it's Teddy. He takes a photo of Teddy, and Teddy tells him to write down Teddy, not Gammell. Teddy also tells him where Jimmy Grantz (John G.) will show up. Lenny goes there, meets Jimmy and kills him. He changes into Jimmy's clothes and takes a photo of him.
-- end b/w scenes --
-- start color scenes, in reverse order --
Teddy shows up and tells his version of the whole story to Lenny, how many times actually he has already found and killed "John G." substitutes. On top of it, Teddy claims his wife wasn't killed by John G. but by Leonard, accidentally applying an insuline overdose to her. Lenny doesn't believe or doesn't want to believe him. He manipulates himself into setting up Teddy as the next John G. target in order to kill him. He writes down "don't believe his lies" on the back of Teddy's photo, then he burns the other photos to fool himself into thinking he never executed his revenge. In addition, he writes down Teddy's license plate number as a John G. clue. He drives away with Jimmy's car (plus 20 grand drug money in the trunk). At a tattoo shop he gets a tattoo of Teddy's license plate. Teddy meets him again; being after the money in the trunk he tries to trick him into leaving town. Lenny looks at the note he has written down on Teddy's photo and decides not to trust him. He sneaks away. Finding a note in the pocket of his (Jimmy's) clothes he drives to the address where he meets Jimmy's girlfriend Natalie. Since he wears Jimmy's clothes and drives his car, Natalie gets suspicious and wants to know what happened to Jimmy. She only knows Jimmy was going to meet a guy called Teddy and there is a guy with a memory problem around. She uses a disgusting method of testing Lenny and then decides his problem is real. Natalie takes Lenny back to her house. She tells him Jimmy is missing and his partner Dodd is looking for him and his 20 grand. Being afraid of Dodd, she asks Lenny to help her to get rid of Dodd. Lenny refuses. Natalie provokes Lenny until he hits her; after Lenny has his usual memory reset she claims Dodd was the one who hit her. Lenny then decides to help Natalie, who writes him an info note about Dodd. Outside he meets Teddy who tells him Natalie is not to be trusted and she and Jimmy were involved in drug dealing. Lenny doesn't believe him and drives back to the hotel inn. There he calls a hooker and tries to recreate with her the scene from the night when his wife was killed. After that he goes to some place where he burns his wife's belongings and has a flashback of her. Driving back, Dodd spots his (Jimmy's) car coincidently and begins to chase him. Lenny finds Natalie's note and concludes the guy chasing him must be Dodd. He escapes and goes to Dodd's place to get rid of him for Natalie. Being at Dodd's place, Lenny forgets what he's here for, thinks he is in his own room and begins to take a shower. Dodd comes back, Lenny and Dodd fight. Dodd ends up gagged and tied up in his closet. Lenny calls Teddy, Teddy comes over and they find a beaten up Dodd in the closet (hilarious scene). They decide to send Dodd out of town. Lenny goes to Natalie's place where he spends the night and Natalie discovers the license plate tattoo. She offers to look the car's owner up. The next morning Lenny meets Teddy for breakfast, then he goes back to the discount inn, where he finds out greedy owner Burt has rented him two rooms at the same time. After that he meets Natalie who gives him a copy of the driver's license of the car's owner. It's John Edward Gammell aka Teddy (of course). She tells him a place that's good for killing, which is ironically the same place Lenny killed Jimmy before. Lenny goes back to the discount inn, where he draws the conclusion that Teddy must be John G. He decides to kill Teddy and calls him. Lenny drives Teddy to the place where he shoots him.
-- end color scenes --
c_regalis uploaded Callum's scenes at YouTube (in chronological order) here.
gammaraychick posted some great amimated Callum gifs here.
The official movie website can be found here.
The original short story "Memento Mori" by Jonathan Nolan is here.
DVD review including easter eggs (chronological edit of the movie, audio commentary that contains four subtly different endings, each of which randomly branches off towards the end of the movie) is here.
The Wikipedia entry can be found here.
The movie is widely commercially available through here and the usual retailers.
The first viewing of the riddle that is Memento is usually very confusing, due to the non-linear timeline. Once you discover that basically the color scenes run in reverse chronological order and the b/w scenes are told in chronological order, you're a huge step closer to understanding this movie. The question that remains though is: was Lenny really the one that accidentally killed his wife by injecting her multiple doses of insulin, meaning that Teddy told him the truth about Sammy Jenkis' story basically being Lenny's own? In my opinion this is the likeliest solution, though a few facts don't fit in this theory - and even the DVD audio commentary offers multiple explanations (see above). Christopher Nolan however claims that there is a final truth to the movie, and that close viewing will reveal it all.
Beyond the formal wizardry that throws the viewer in a similarly confused state like its protagonist, Memento is a moving piece about revenge, manipulation and the meaning of memory and identity. Though the Callum quotient in this movie is quite small (he is a bad guy again here, but also very pretty), it's strongly recommended nonetheless.