Welcome to Memento Explained – but before begin I must give a word of warning to those who have yet to see the movie… this review is intended as an extended dissection – an exegesis if you will – of Memento, its themes and its potential meanings. Please do not read this and then email me upset because I ruined the movie for you.
Memento could easily be chalked up to a gimmick. Take a basic film noir story, toss in a brain injury as an excuse, shake vigorously until the extremely mundane storyline is unrecognizable to anyone and voila you have an Oscar nominee. This would be a viable reading of the movie if it weren’t for the fact that most critics & reviewers that came to this conclusion failed to even comprehend the ‘basic’ storyline. In my opinion for a critic to come to this conclusion requires them to actually comprehend the ins and outs of the storyline before they dismantle it and discard it as basic noir tripe.
And yet even if you were to cut the movie in the correct order and ‘straighten’ out the chronology², it is my opinion that Memento still out performs other movies in its own genre. Just the simple inversion of the hero/mystery investigator into a dubious half breed of good guy, bad guy makes it reason enough to fall in love with this movie. Memento takes the noir genre places it’s never been before.
¹ If you are looking for a non-spoiler filled review of the movie I’m certain that another google search will yield you the results you are looking for.
² Which Nolan actually did do eventually – he placed it on a DVD hidden as an easter egg. But its like hiring Picasso for a museum showing to repaint each of his paintings in the show minus that little thing called cubism. The original IS the point… not what it would look like in normal mode.
Memento Explained – Riddles
It seems as though this movie has been haunting me from my first very encounter with it. Riddles wrapped within riddles – mazes set inside mazes. It almost seems as if Christopher Nolan shot a coherent storyline and then allowed a chimp into the editing room to finalize the order of events. It’s almost too much for the senses to handle. Interspersed sections of black-and-white footage trip in and out amongst the larger color story that seems to be running in juxtaposition to its monochrome counterpart. Memento is enough to make even Tarantino¹ drop into a double handed head clutch wondering what in the world is going on.
The question I have been working on for the past few weeks and months has been whether or not it is possible to make any sense out of the entire jumble of techno color celluloid. From how I see it, understanding the chronology and untying the knots is just the first step to understanding the larger picture that Nolan has set before us. Reading review after review and discussing the movie with almost any poor sap that was unlucky enough to cross my path I have tried to get a handle on not only the events of the actual movie itself, but also its back story. It was actually a surprise to find out that most people, although they enjoyed the movie very much, were quite content with being completely and irrevocably confused². Which is why I have contented myself with the fact that this review will be hated far and wide – this is actually my final step in a 10 step program to rid myself of the monkey on my back that is Memento – I’d do just about anything to pull that little full gainer off.
¹ Terantino’s Pulp Fiction is still one of the great examples of dramatic film edits that upend the chronology of the basic story to both intrigue and highlight the story from a different perspective.
² After thinking about it a bit more, maybe these are the wise individuals amongst us? How many brain cells did I fry trying to run the gambit of possibilities and weed out the various ‘unacceptable’ explanations? And yet I can’t shake the idea there has got to be an intense study in human behavior here somewhere that could be used for some Sociology Masters program that would eat this stuff up.
Memento Explained – Characters
For those of you who haven’t seen the movie in a little while I have included a quick walk through of each of the major characters¹. I am certain that I have missed a few², but these are the main individuals that interact with Lenny anyway.
Leonard Shelby – (Guy Pierce) is a former insurance investigator who apparently has anterograde amnesia – which is a condition that keeps Lenny from creating long-term memories. The mental trauma was caused by an attack on him and his wife. Lenny can remember everything prior to the attack with at least some degree of reliability, including the attack itself but his new memories don’t usually last more than in 15 minute sections.
Mrs. Shelby – (Jorja Fox) it is unclear whether Lenny’s wife was killed in the attack that caused his anterograde amnesia or not.
J.G. – Potentially the initials of one of a possible two attackers that broke in to Lenny’s house, raped his wife and cracked Lenny’s skull. It appears that Lenny killed one of the attackers before ‘John G.’ could escape.
Teddy – (Joe Pantoliano) One of the original cops that investigated the attack on Lenny and his wife. Teddy seems to have taken an interest in Lenny for some reason or another. It is Teddy’s monologue towards the end (beginning) of the movie that gives us the largest amount of information regarding Lenny and his life before the accident.
Natalie – (Carrie-Anne Moss) Supposedly Jimmie’s girlfriend and eventual love interest to Lenny. It is Natalie that shows us more than anyone else that we aren’t in Kansas anymore. The connections between her, Dodd and Teddy intricately define Memento’s plot line.
¹ For the Memento gods out there, don’t take offense. Think of this as the mental stretches before an intense cerebral workout – or more appropriately, the quiet before the storm.
² Like the tattoo person – who, I might add is the only individual I noticed that didn’t take advantage of Lenny’s mental state³.
³ Nah, I am certain she charged him for two tattoos – she must have.
Jimmie Grantz – (Larry Holden) The drug dealer Lenny kills at the beginning (end) of the film in his attempt at avenging the death of his wife.
Dodd – (Callum Keith Rennie) Jimmie’s boss, who Lenny beats up and is run out of town because Lenny believes Dodd is beating Natalie up.
Sammy Jankis – (Stephen Tobolowsky) Lenny has a tattoo that says ‘Remember Sammy’ to remind him of the Sammy Jankis claim which he supposedly investigated before he and his wife were attacked. Apparently Sammy also had anterograde amnesia and eventually ended up accidentally killing his wife when she tested him by continually telling him it was time for her insulin shot. Teddy brings this story into question by saying Lenny is actually Sammy and that Lenny is the one that killed his wife accidentally.
Mrs. Jankis – (Harriet Sansom Harris) She is either the woman that Sammy Jankis accidentally kills with insulin or she is a fictional character that is actually Leonard’s wife depending on who you believe. Teddy says that Sammy is single and Lenny firmly remembers Sammy as having a wife that tested him.
Memento Explained – Chronology
I know that there are pockets of people who believe that Memento is a complete sham that has been cobbled together out of car parts that don’t work together. Turn the ignition and nothing happens. It is also widely held that Memento runs from the end of the events that took place back through to the beginning – in a word – backwards. This is not necessarily true. Nolan has taken extreme care to write a story that works as you assemble the pieces back together again¹.
You will notice that through out Memento there are scenes that are in color and scenes that are in black-and-white. These two separate threads in the movie are actually running away from each other. Interestingly enough they both begin with the first scene of the movie, which you will notice is in both black-and-white and also in color². The color fades in as Lenny is watching the picture to appear within the Polaroid he has just taken.
¹ I am not speaking of the back story at this point – that is a completely different matter that I will get to soon.
² I first learned of these juxtaposed threads in a Salon article by Andy Klein entitled ‘Everything you wanted to know about Memento’. This is the first article that I have found to describe the chronology in an easily understandable and completely accurate way.
As Andy Klein puts it ‘So, if you want to look at the story as it would actually transpire chronologically, rather than the disjointed way Nolan presents it – 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.’¹ Klein has beautifully explained what we all felt innately as we watched. The black-and-white forward scenes give a wonderful respite to the chaos of the continual backwardness within the color scenes. It is his connecting of the scenes at the last scene of the movie that is so brilliant. I never truly understood how we managed to travel forwards and backwards without grinding serious number of gears and eventually throwing a rod through the hood of the car.
Memento Explained & Untangled
With the help of a DVD player, and a well-exercised thumb², I was up for the challenge ahead of me. Walking through the steps described above I was able to verify Klein’s reordering of events as he described it should work out. With that in mind, I thought I would lay out the story as I saw it with my remote in one hand and a notebook in the other³.
1. Opens with Lenny in a motel room talking with Teddy on the phone – telling him about Sammy Jankis and his mental condition.
2. Teddy tells Lenny that Jimmy (supposedly the man who killed his wife, actually he is a drug dealer that Teddy wants to get rid of) will be at an abandoned building.
3. Lenny kills Jimmy and takes his clothes and his Jaguar (which has $200,000 in the trunk). Teddy tells him that Jimmy was not the killer – and that he has already killed the killer. Lenny decides Teddy is now on his bad list and writes down his license number.
¹ Klein even goes so far as to give a road map to putting the movie back together again – using his schema (black-and-white scenes are granted numbers 1-22, while the color scenes are lettered A-V) the movie in its original form looks something like ‘1, V, 2, U, 3, T, 4, S, … 20, C, 21, B and 22/A’. The untangled version would run something like ‘1, 2, 3, 4, … 20, 21, 22/A, B,C, … T, U, V’
² From years of Super Mario (the original mind you) on the Nintendo
³ Yeah, yeah, I am sure you all have this bit sorted out and memorized but it is still good to have it all out in the open. Keep in mind that the real serious Think-Tank work happens after this is over and it is all between the lines.
4. Lenny heads to the Tattoo parlor to get the license tattooed to his thigh. Teddy shows up and tries to get the keys to the jaguar. Lenny gets away.
5. Lenny finds the note in his (Jimmy’s suit) pocket and heads for Ferdy’s bar to meet someone named Natalie. Natalie tests the validity of his anterograde amnesia and then takes him to her house.
6. Natalie leaves and then returns and hides all the pens and pencils in her house. After which she provokes Leonard into hitting her. Natalie leaves, only to return minutes later crying about someone named Dodd having beaten her.
7. Lenny promises to defend Natalie. Leaving to go after Dodd he encounters Teddy that tells him not to trust Natalie and suggests he get a room at the Discount Inn¹.
8. In room Lenny calls for an escort to recreate the night of his wife’s supposed death. He then goes out and burns the items that once used to belong to his wife.
9. Leaving the site, Dodd spots him and he makes a run for it. Lenny ends up in Dodd’s hotel room². When Dodd returns Lenny mistakes him for an intruder and beats him up and then calls Teddy.
10. Teddy and Lenny send Dodd packing and then Teddy tries to get access to the Jaguar’s keys once again. Checking his notes he realizes Dodd had something to do with Natalie, whom he then goes to see.
11. Natalie calms him down and agrees to help him find who the owner of the license plate is. In the morning she goes to find out about the license plate number and Teddy runs into Lenny and they have lunch.
12. Returning to the Discount Inn he finds the note he is supposed to meet Natalie for lunch and he also realizes he is being charged for two rooms. Rushing to meet Natalie he finds out that the license plate number is registered to Teddy³.
13. Lenny calls Teddy and they go back to the abandoned building where the movie ends (starts). Lenny shoots Teddy (this is the scene we saw actually run backwards in the opening).
¹ Lenny’d been given the room number by Natalie and he believed it was his own)
² Humorously, Lenny gets a second room there
³ Just as Lenny had planned that he would discover
I must say that if this isn’t helping you out any – many apologies – but from where I’m sitting I figure this 10-step stuff might just work. Now I know that the chronology is just the bare bones of this movie upon which the real heavy lifting is done. Take for example the Sammy Jankis scene where Teddy explains that Sammy doesn’t exist, that Lenny was the one that actually killed his own wife. Do we believe Teddy? Here are two frames of the Lenny – Sammy metamorphosis to remind you of this scene’s goodness:
Or do we assume that she died due to complications in the attack some time later? We are confronted with dozens of conflicts similar to this one.
Another question that hits us early on is whether or not there are two attackers or not? If there was a J.G., did he die in the attack on Lenny and his wife? Or changing gears, consider the most controversial scene by far in the movie. Towards the end of the movie¹ after Lenny kills Jimmy; Lenny has a flash² where he has the ‘I Did It’ tattoo on his chest and he is with his wife smiling and laughing on a bed. This one moment throws many fans into a dither when you bring it up. It is this latitude, which we are allowed to think within and rationalize for ourselves, that makes this movie such an awesome experience even long after you’ve walked out of the theater.
Memento Explained – Theories
There are many different theories within the Memento community that range from the asinine to the epiphanic that attempt to answer many of these questions. Each theory is interesting in its own right. It is through developing and weeding out these theories that we get closer and closer to an acceptable meta-theory for Memento. Below, I have given a précis of the most prominent theories I have heard discussed in various places around the net.
Theory 1 – ‘The Disney – Happily Ever After – Theory’
The Disney Theory³ states that Leonard’s wife doesn’t die, but he himself does end up in a mental institution for some unknown reason. Eventually he escapes from the institution, either by himself or, more likely, with the help of Teddy, who has realized what a great weapon Lenny can be. Teddy convinces Lenny that his wife died and assists him in seeking out revenge. Teddy gives Leonard the police file with the crucial pages missing. Teddy’s monster killing machine eventually turns on Teddy, and kills him. Eventually Leonard learns his wife is still alive and is reunited and voila, we have the confusing ‘I Did It’ scene with smiling wife present.
¹ The beginning of the chronology
² The big question here is whether it’s backwards, forwards or neither.
³ Sometimes better known as the ‘Happily Ever After Theory’
The only minor problem with this theory is that the official Memento Web site clearly and unambiguously states that Lenny’s wife definitely died. It is on a psychiatric report, apparently from early 1998, that first refers to her as having passed away – but, interestingly enough it suggests that Leonard thinks she’s still alive. Outside of that little snafu this theory parallels the movie perfectly.
Theory 2 – ‘The Literal Theory’
This theory pretty much takes the evidence given to the viewer at face value. One attacker (or the one attacker, either way) escapes and Lenny’s wife passes away. Sammy is only there as a reminder to live his life more intelligently than Sammy did. Eventually, knowing a good thing when he sees it, Teddy begins using Lenny for his own means. Eventually Teddy gets tired of retelling Lenny everything that happens – snaps – and tells Lenny the truth. Bad idea. Lenny writes down on Teddy’s Polaroid ‘Don’t Believe His Lies’. The rest is history.
Literal Theory Deconstructed
The two major questions I have for this concept is what do we do with the metamorphosis scene where Sammy morphs into Lenny while Teddy is talking. The second is the ever-tricky ‘I Did It’ scene. Both of these snippets of the movie would have to be explained by saying they are errant memories of Lenny I would guess.
Theory 3 – ‘The Verbal Kint theory’
The ‘Verbal Kint Theory’ is an intriguing one that does a Borg-job on several of the various ideas out there. The cornerstone to this theory is that there is only one attacker that rapes and beats Lenny’s wife. This single attacker then dies from the wounds inflicted upon him by Lenny during the attack. Sammy Jankis doesn’t actually exist at all in this theory, it is Lenny who kills his wife with an insulin overdose.
Verbal Kint Deconstructed
The ‘I Did It’ scene is the only question that isn’t answered by this argument. This theory is probably the strongest argument I have heard so far. The thing that is brilliant about the ‘Verbal Kint Theory’ is the fact that Sammy Jankis is just a scapegoat, the killer is just a scapegoat and Lenny is far from admitting to himself he might be his own worst enemy.
Memento Explained – Conclusion
I am sure I have spent too much time playing with the various intricacies of this movie. And yet at the same time the sheer potential there for this type of mental exercise speaks volumes about how intricately designed Memento is. I don’t want you to think for a moment that I believe these theories are the end all – actually I think that they don’t even scratch the surface¹. My whole point in undergoing this exercise was to provide a springboard for some who haven’t taken the time to think deeply about the movie and see how wonderful it truly is. Most importantly join the conversation below and share your theories!!
¹ I read an extremely thorough argument linking Sammy’s wife to actually being Lenny’s wife based upon the sheer basis of Sammy’s wife’s wrist watch and Lenny’s wife’s alarm clock. The alarm clock being one of Lenny’s final possessions of his wife. To be honest my head swam at the detail and the inferred implications.