Twenty years ago, Memento offered up a crime thriller told out of sequence. Director Christopher Nolan’s experimental storytelling wasn’t a gimmick. As much as Nolan manipulates time in Memento, he manipulates our emotions toward the lead, a man named Leonard (played by Guy Pearce) who has a “condition.”
Leonard can’t make new memories. This specific type of short-term memory loss started after his wife’s murder. To grieve, the bleached blonde seeks revenge for his wife’s killer, playing detective while staying in a cheap motel that’s littered with evidence. Such an investigation is difficult when you can’t remember a thing; so, a cop named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and bartender named Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) guide Leonard along the path of retaliation.
Leonard also does his best to assist himself, relying on the facts as he did at his old job as an insurance claims investigator. Leonard takes Polaroids then scribbles specifics on the photos. He tattoos clues to his body. He carries a police case file on his wife’s death with him as well as some of her belongings—a book, a brush, a plush bear and a nightgown.
Scenes shot in color are sequenced backwards, unraveling how Leonard came to a point to shoot his supposed friend, Teddy, in the opening. Black-and-white footage bursts in between the backwards story, showing a paranoid Leonard in his hotel room, discussing his past with someone on the phone. As the movie continues, the black-and-white sequences begin to bleed into color footage. The story becomes clear: Leonard’s condition is a predetermined pattern made by his own design, no matter the actual state of his memory. As Leonard pieces together the present, we are piecing together his true motives. A boilerplate thriller becomes the quintessential Nolan film that plays with time (and a forerunner to the “time inversion” in Tenet) as it shifts how we relate to our protagonist.
How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?
At first, it’s easy to sympathize with Leonard. Nolan often makes Leonard’s condition the butt of jokes. After calling Leonard “Lenny,” Teddy apologizes sarcastically: “I must have forgot.” When Leonard enters the Discount Inn lobby, he pushes instead of pulls, smushing himself against the glass door. At that same cheap motel, the clerk named Burt (Mark Boone Junior) admits that he charged Leonard for two rooms. “Business is slow, and I told my manager about your condition … You’re not going to remember anyway,” Burt says before advising Leonard to always get a receipt. Later, when running through a parking lot, Leonard asks himself, “OK, so, what am I doing? Oh, I’m chasing this guy.” When the low-level drug dealer named Dodd (Callum Keith Rennie) turns to shoot, Leonard’s narration shifts, “Nope, he’s chasing me.”
These one-liners are peppered in between the portrait of a sad man. Consider how Leonard spends a night with Natalie. The next morning, he begins putting on her shirt, unaware of any differences in the clothing. The night before, he lay awake in bed, talking to himself, “If I could just reach over and touch her side of the bed, I would. … But I can’t. … I lie here not knowing how long I’ve been alone. … How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?” During a meeting at a diner, Natalie asks Leonard about the memories of his wife. “You can just feel the details, the bits and pieces you never bothered to put into words,” Leonard says over snapshots of his wife. “You get the feel of a person, enough to know how much you miss them and how much you hate the person who took them away.”
Leonard even tries to recreate the feeling of being startled awake and longing for his wife by hiring an escort to place her belongings around the hotel room then disappear into the bathroom. Near a trashcan fire full of those keepsakes, Leonard sighs to himself: “I can’t remember to forget you.”
Without knowing Leonard’s actual motives and personality, it’s easy to feel sorry for Leonard. However, because of the sequencing, Nolan hints at Leonard’s true nature as a cold, calculating killer. In the black-and-white footage, Leonard is a paranoid chatty Cathy, describing how his method works over the phone. Leonard says he has “reason, drive, routine, habit,” that he “relies on the facts.” This is an entirely different situation than an old client he investigated for insurance fraud, Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky). In footage at his old job, Leonard doubts Jankis’ condition, repeatedly testing his memory with electro-charged shapes and giving Jankis’ wife a seed of doubt. Leonard describes himself as a success compared to Jankis, who eventually accidentally killed his wife by insulin overdose. As the narrative unfolds, Nolan shows how Jankis is a tool—affirmation that Leonard is grieving with purpose.
Over the phone, Leonard reveals his main way of dealing with people in his condition, “You teach yourself how to bluff it.” Nolan then shows that Jankis and Leonard are the same person in a quick shot as a nurse passes them in the hospital living room quarters. With this in mind, more details of Leonard’s true nature come to light. When confronting Leonard, Teddy gives us a sense of the actual motives. “You don’t know who you’ve become,” Teddy says. “You don’t know anything. You could do anything and not have the faintest idea why.” Teddy admits he had helped Leonard previously find the person who assaulted Leonard’s wife, a “John G.” Teddy thought revenge would stick, but it didn’t. Teddy admits he has used Leonard repeatedly to take care of other bad guys named “John G,” that even Teddy’s real name is John Gamill. Betrayed by this and keeping these details in mind, Leonard creates a scenario to set up and kill Teddy.
With each re-watch, the details of Leonard’s conditioning come to light. Though Leonard is grieving, he’s a violent man with a quick temper. When Teddy appears in Leonard’s car with a warning about Natalie, Leonard instantly chokes Teddy. Backed into a corner, Leonard punches Natalie after she had questioned his manhood, condition and love of his wife. Moving through life with the guidance of haphazard notes, Leonard acts without full perspective. This allows him to beat up and kidnap Dodd, to steal a Jaguar, to murder those who fit the profile of his tattooed clues. Vengeance is all that matters.
As soon as Memento ends, we want to start it over again to see how it fits together. What makes Memento stand out from Nolan’s other films is its lack of unexplainable events—the magic in The Prestige, black holes in Interstellar and dreams in Inception. No shade to those movies, but Memento is more believable, more critic-proof because of its humanity. As Leonard seeks the identity of this killer, the audience slowly discovers Leonard’s identity—a man who has conditioned himself to an unending cycle of revenge. How Nolan manipulates our emotions of Leonard in less than two hours remains his greatest trick to date.
NOLAN/TIME is a series exploring how we’ve watched the clock in Christopher Nolan’s films.