It’s the sort of statement that once seemed deep but now seems cliche, especially as more and more movies use it: everyone believes that they are the heroes of their own stories. Sometimes a movie will actively go in the other direction, featuring a character who knows that he’s evil and/or doesn’t care,* and that’s nice, but more and more audiences are embracing the ambiguity of a hero who doesn’t know how evil he really is. Crime and Punishment is the oldest story I have read that uses the concept, but it probably goes back even further: no doubt Cain thought Abel had it coming for some reason. So it’s high praise for me to say that Christopher Nolan’s 2000 film Memento is my favorite movie to use this theme.
The film was such a big hit that it became a big part of the pop-culture lexicon. So big a part, in fact, that you may know the basic concept even if you never saw it: Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) sustains an injury that takes away his ability to make new memories. His so-called “short-term memory loss” leaves him constantly forgetting everyone he meets and everything he does. His wife (played in flashbacks by Jorja Fox) was raped and killed in the attack, and he uses a complicated series of notes – tattoos, comments scrawled on the back of Polaroid pictures, et cetera – to conduct a search for the killer.
The real mastery of this film is its Oscar-nominated screenplay, written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, adapted from a short story of Jonathan’s. The plot of the film can be easily summed up, as I just did in the previous paragraph, but the screenplay is insanely complicated and meticulously constructed. The main story begins with a killing and moves backward in time, scene after scene unwinding the investigation that led up to that moment. The reversed scenes are separated by a black-and-white portion that moves forward in time and develops a lot of the exposition related to Leonard’s condition, but we have no idea how long before or after the main plot that it takes place. A twist late in the game is supposed to tie everything together, but in truth it’s near impossible to sketch out the plot of this movie without a second viewing.
As I wrote in my review of The Third Man, the core idea of Memento is just a remake of that film. Leonard suspects there was another man involved in a crime, a man whose existence the police do not acknowledge, and he is searching through an unfriendly world in order to find that person. In both films we are surprised to learn that the other man is closer to our hero than he could have believed. The difference in Memento is that the details of the entire mystery are all in the head of the protagonist, and we necessarily cannot trust his account. He has brain damage, after all.
The movies are also separated by the fact that Leonard is a completely different character than Holly Martins. Where Martins was passionate and reckless, Leonard is buttoned-up and cautious, his mood defined by discipline and his investigation characterized by conditioning. Pearce’s performance is a little excessive in that regard: he’s too buttoned up, too cold. Even during the scenes in which he’s supposed to be letting people in and getting emotional, he’s still holding back. Much like Pearce’s performance in L.A. Confidential, he starts off terrific with his cool demeanor, but when we need him to do something more he can’t deliver.
In some ways Memento is very much dated today. One Movie Klubber compared it to The Sixth Sense in that once you know the ending twist, it’s not nearly as good. I think that criticism is a little too severe, but I did find that some scenes become a little dull to watch once you know how it’s all going to come out. In particular the early black-and-white scenes are tough, despite the presence of veteran character actor Stephen Tobolowsky as fellow short-term-memory-loss sufferer Sammy Jenkis. Also, as I pointed out after the movie, technology has obviated a lot of Memento: nearly all of Leonard’s problems could be solved by having a Twitter account.
Related to the dated aspect of this movie is that the concept of Memento can buckle under too much study. There are a great many scenes in this movie where Leonard is doing something, and then he hops in the car to go somewhere; wouldn’t he have forgotten where he was going long before he got there? How can he even have that phone conversation during the film’s black-and-white scenes without forgetting halfway through? The movie’s only real answer to those questions is to wave its hands and say, “the mind and memory are unpredictable,” which was enough for me to buy it, but is not an excuse which everyone can accept upon the second viewing.
Conversely, though, some parts of Memento gain immense power after multiple viewings. I was especially floored by the performance of Carrie-Anne Moss (yes, Trinity from The Matrix) as Natalie, a barmaid with mysterious motivations. Once you know what is coming in the movie and you can follow Natalie’s emotional arc from the beginning, and that makes her work at the start of the film strangely poetic. It’s surprising that Moss didn’t make more high-profile dramatic films, because this performance suggests that her best work was still ahead.
I also like Joe Pantoliano (geez, another Matrix alumnus) more and more each time I watch the movie. During my first viewing I mainly just noticed the forced wittiness of his character Teddy, as he uses the same jokes over and over again and even tells Leonard that he’s doing it. Subsequent viewings made me realize that Teddy repeats the same dramatic arc throughout the movie as well. One particular line of his at the start of the movie becomes heartbreaking when you hear him use it again at the end, knowing that it will go unheeded.
More than that, I thought “Joey Pants” added some ambiguity to the film’s big twist. As we learn during that scene, even those memories of Leonard’s that we were thought were unimpeachable can be questioned. Memory is like that. However, all of the supposedly true facts in that scene come from Teddy. Why exactly should we trust him? We’ve already seen throughout the movie that there’s no lie he won’t tell to Leonard, no way that he won’t use Leonard’s disability to his own benefit if he can. The more I watch this movie, the more I wonder if we can trust anything at the end.
That, in the end, is the point. Leonard is the hero in his own story, but his heroism comes from a system that is like every other human system: it can be manipulated, cheated, and deceived. Leonard can’t trust anyone to avoid using him and twisting his intended heroism against him. Every character in the movie does it, he knows they can do it, and he can’t stop himself from forgetting that they’ve done it. Much like the protagonists of Nolan’s other movies, such as Insomnia, The Prestige, and Inception, all Leonard can do is lie to himself and say that he’s always on the right path. What else is there? The only thing worse than realizing you’re not the hero in your own story is also being unsure if you’re the villain.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*The Terminator is an example, as is Johnny Ringo from Tombstone.