Viking Night: Memento
By Bruce Hall
August 14, 2012
Long before their stewardship of Gotham city, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan were the architects of Memento, the mind-expanding thriller that made them household names. It's a small town murder mystery full of strange people with shady secrets. But the strangest one, and the one with the most to hide is Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce). Leonard is a handsome man with Guy Fieri hair who has several significant problems, thanks to a head injury he suffered during a home invasion. He no longer has any short-term memory, and every few minutes he forgets where he is and what he's doing.
Ever since the attack, Leonard cannot form new memories, and the last one he can recall is the image of his wife, killed by the intruders. One of the assailants was never caught, so Leonard has taken it upon himself to hunt the man down, whatever the cost. Unfortunately, a guy who can't remember anything for more than ten minutes doesn't make for much of a private eye.
Leonard compensates using a battle-tested system featuring elaborate body tattoos for the big stuff and for everything else, handwritten notes on the backs of Polaroids. He carries stacks of battered pictures around in his pockets and babbles about his condition like an Asperger patient whenever he meets someone – sometimes for the fourth or fifth time. But the arrangement has worked well so far; he finds out that the man who killed his wife is named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), and we know that Leonard has already killed him because the movie opens with his murder.
Leonard has already succeeded; already avenged his loss. Or has he?
The first thing you usually hear about Memento is how confusing it is. The movie unfolds the same way Leonard's memory works - short chunks of images presented slightly out of context. Simply put, the story is told backward, like a hazy memory. We know how everything ends but we don't know why, and we're not quite sure we have the right frame of reference. One man lives and one man dies but the devil is in the details, and those we do not have. It's disorienting but it forces you to pay attention, and to see things from Leonard’s perspective. Sympathy for the hero is built in to Memento, and it's easy to see just how maddening life might be if you could never truly trust anything you saw or heard.
Leonard's notes lead him to a diner where he meets a disheveled woman named Natalie (Carrie Ann Moss). Obviously they've met before and though her outward agenda is to help, it's pretty clear she's leaving some things out. She hands him an envelope with damning information on Teddy.
Teddy also seems to know Leonard pretty well. But there's something off about him, too. He repeatedly warns Leonard to leave town and avoid Natalie. But Natalie says the things he wants to hear, and because she's a beautiful woman, he feels compelled to trust her. Teddy is full of unpleasant observations that do not always match Leonard's carefully crafted information network of crazy tattoos and warped photographs. Some of them would make sense to someone who is able to remember things for longer than it takes to boil an egg, but Leonard is not that guy.
So whom does he trust? Are any of these people what they seem?
Good question. Leonard is very confident of his system, and believes it to be infallible. And his resolve is admirable; in his shoes, who wouldn't want to pick up where the law left off? But his System is only as good as his ability to correctly interpret what he’s looking at. Even to a normal person, a picture with a note scribbled on the back could mean one thing at the time you write it, something else later, and nothing at all to a stranger. And that’s the key - no matter how much information he collects, or how quickly he catches up each time, Leonard is always looking at things with the eyes of a stranger.
I have to give Memento credit for maintaining a sense of credibility. The web of lies and deadly pitfalls Leonard stumbles into becomes obvious as early as halfway through the film, and knowing the ending doesn’t help. But while I insist the movie isn’t as complicated as it looks, making it appear that way was clearly a grind. Each scene is like one of Leonard's photographs; images without full meaning - just another maddening piece to the puzzle. If tattooing yourself is a good way to remember things, someone had to get some mad ink to edit this film. If you're the kind of person who likes to guess, Memento will send you barking up the wrong tree several times.
Now imagine you're Leonard, a guy you could hit with a crowbar come back a half hour later to borrow 50 bucks from. It’s a gloriously painful ride, which is what makes the finale so satisfying. Once the context if the film's beginning/end is established, in that moment the entire story takes on a new light. Trust me - no matter how much Memento might confuse you - stick around. It's worth it.
Like most great thrillers, Memento leaves you thinking. Thinking about what you just saw, and thinking about how it might apply to you. It’s all about context - the way we tend assume everyone sees things the same way we do. They don’t, they never will, and our collective failure to understand that is the true root of all the world’s problems. At least, that’s what Memento would have you believe.