Review by Walid Habboub
September 18, 2001
It is impossible to review this film without mentioning any spoilers about the movie. In fact, it is quite a mistake to even see the film while knowing anything about it. So it is natural to note that any decent review that attempts to explore the film with any seriousness will contain heavy spoilers. Consider that a warning. For those only looking for an opinion on the quality of the film, please go to the last paragraph for a spoiler-free summation.
The story, as it is, is about an insurance claims investigator named Leonard Shelby who wakes up one night to find that his wife is being raped by a masked man in the washroom. In the ensuing struggle, Leonard shoots and kills the man, but unfortunately, the attacker's partner attacks Leonard from behind. After Leonard hits his head on the bathroom mirror, he falls to the ground and lies face-to-face with his wife as his blood flows onto the tile floor.
Because of this incident, Leonard develops a type of very rare amnesia that takes away its victim's ability to form new memories. So Leonard can remember his life only up to the point of the incident that caused his condition. Tragically, this means that the last thing he remembers is his wife being raped by a masked man. What this does to Leonard's wife is frustrate her beyond sanity. She doesn't believe that he is faking his condition, but the insurance company denies Leonard's claim on the basis that there is nothing physically wrong with him. In desperation, Leonard's wife sets up an elaborate plan to test out her husband's truthfulness by tricking him into overdosing her on insulin. In effect, she commits suicide, because she can no longer live with this man who does not grow and who cannot live a normal life and who in essence is not her Leonard, the man she knows and loves.
That, of course, is only the set-up to this intricate and complex film. The story of the film surrounds Leonard sometime after the death of his wife. Incidentally, the film hints that Leonard had spent some time in a mental institution, possibly due to him killing his wife, but that is neither important to the film nor is it dwelled upon. The film is set around the time when Leonard has been tracking down his wife's killer. Leonard compensates for his lack of memory by creating elaborate clues to follow. The clues include body tattoos that Leonard marks as "facts" and Polaroid pictures that he takes to remind himself of his surroundings.
Leonard goes on a quest to hunt down the person whom he believes to be his wife's killer, a fact he believes to be true since it is tattooed on his chest. How Leonard comes to this conclusion is the twist in the movie, a twist that is cleverly and subtly set up throughout the entire film. Along the way, we meet all the key players that drive the story for the audience. First, we meet Teddy, who is the cop who was in charge of investigating the rape of Leonard's wife. We learn that Teddy did help Leonard find and kill his wife's rapist, but is now using Leonard in an elaborate drug scheme. The second character we meet is Natalie, who is the girlfriend of Teddy and Leonard's drug-dealing victim. Her life is turned upside-down when Leonard kills her boyfriend, thinking that the boyfriend is his wife's murderer. She then proceeds to use Leonard to save her own skin, and does it in a truly gut-wrenching scene. The purpose of these characters is that they set up and ultimately lead to the twist at the end, to the epiphany which the film has been setting up for us. In addition to being crucial parts of the story, these characters serve to demonstrate how effective Leonard's method of remembering is, whether it can be trusted or not, and they also help flesh out the themes that are prevalent throughout the film. They also serve as a soundboard for Leonard, who is well aware of his situation and who uses them to fill in little details that might not be very obvious to the audience.
The genius of the film is that the twist is not contrived, that it is based not on the story itself but at the theme and points it tries to put across. Leonard constantly speaks of memory and how it cannot be trusted, and as we go along for the ride, we begin to trust his system of remembering things. Slowly we realize that his system is not perfect, which serves as a parallel to his constant reminder that memory is not perfect. The final shock comes when we are shown that Leonard has tricked himself into thinking that there is a killer out there. Much like everything else in the film, this not only serves a purpose but it also has a reason behind it.
The reason Leonard tricks his memory and himself into thinking there is a killer out there is because he needs a purpose to live, something to drive him. He decided that if he did not have something to focus himself on, he would not survive, and for this purpose, what could be more useful than revenge and hatred? Also, Leonard probably creates this story of Sammy Jankis and of John G. to alleviate whatever guilt he must have had. Though this is never told in the movie, it is reasonable to assume.
On a side note, the genius of the Sammy Jankis story is that it is used over and over in the film, and it becomes a concrete fact for whoever is watching the film and trying to solve the mystery. The revelation in the end that it is not even true, or entirely true, anyway, really pulls out the carpet from under the viewer/investigator and makes the epiphany that much more effective. Further, and perhaps more importantly, it keeps the viewer moving on a parallel line with Leonard and his experiences. This keeps the story personal and much more powerful in every aspect. The personalization of Leonard's story is what makes the film intriguing and powerful.
And whatever slow parts there were to the film, they end up being the most powerful scenes upon a second viewing. All the scenes involving flashbacks to Leonard's wife take on a completely new tone when seen a second time around, and with the knowledge that this man who loves his wife so deeply actually killed her and doesn't realize it. The prostitute scene, while a bit melodramatic initially, really hit home during a second viewing. Again, the beauty of the film is that it has many themes running throughout; all of them are explored wonderfully and are, in the end, used to give that twist that not only makes for good entertainment, but actually gets across the entire point of the themes.
The structure of the film, the same structure that is wholly responsible for the film's epiphanic moment, is the reason why the film wraps very tightly. It was necessary to have the film told in this structure for effectiveness and not just for style purposes. For one, it strengthens the personalization aspect of the film. The audience is challenged and presented with the dilemma of working backwards in the story, much like Leonard is. The other crucial aspect of the structure is to reinforce the themes throughout the movie. If not for the structure, and if the film was shown chronologically, audience involvement and sympathy is lost, and the story would probably fall apart and relegate the film to being another semi-well-made puzzle.
Coincidentally, there are three occasions when the audience is pulled out of the film. The first is Natalie's betrayal, which serves as a real kick-in-the-ass for the viewer. The other instance is the beer-drinking incident in the bar. The latter is a humorous incident which shows a new twist as to how scary Leonard's plight can be; the former is of more importance, because it foreshadows the emotional kick that will come with the final revelation in the film. It's a great barometer to what is about to come, and because the ending is tempered, it is definitely more believable and more real. The scene plants the seed of doubt regarding memory, and this doubt is revealed to be not unfounded at the end.
There has been criticism that if the film were not told in this unique way then it wouldn't be a very good film. The same critics dismiss the film as being all style and no substance. This, however, is really arguing a moot point. The fact is that the structure is part of the story and contributes to the story in more than just style. The narrative serves a purpose beyond telling the story, and that is to involve the audience. With audience involvement comes emotional connection, and with that comes heartbreak and satisfaction. This criticism would be the same as dismissing William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury as an average book because it is all style and no substance. And that is quite unfair to Faulkner, and it is unfair to Memento's director, Christopher Nolan.
Much like any puzzle film, questions abound by the time the end of the film comes around, most notably a flashback type of moment where Leonard is sitting in bed with his wife with a tattoo that says, "I've done it", on his chest. This quick take is easily explained if a viewer simply listens to what Leonard is saying during the entire scene. Leonard says that maybe he can close his eyes and pretend that everything with the outside world is OK and it will become so. The flash shows that this couldn't be, because of the paradox involved in having his wife be alive and have him avenge her death at the same time. This drives Leonard to set into action the events that lead up to his freedom. There isn't much more to that scene. The scene is not a true flashback, but just a what-if flashback.
By the end of the film, it is important to realize that Leonard, although a passionate and just man, does commit a brutal murder. Upon realizing that he is being used by Teddy, Leonard sets himself up to kill Teddy. In essence, he hires himself as a hit man. Leonard's reasoning is simple: he needs to be set free, he needs to find closure as far as his wife is concerned, and the fuel that drives him has now engulfed him and he needs to be free. Leonard says, "You're gonna be my John G," with regards to Teddy. At that second, when he knows that he has avenged his wife's murder and that he is being used by Teddy, who keeps him living in his hell, he realizes that his task is done and that he now has to take control and break free from the pain. A brutal act indeed, but again, it all ties back to the themes that the film explored.
Certainly, this is not a film that can be appreciated with only one viewing, and it is not a film whose meaning can be fully understood or realized with one viewing. What one viewing will give you is an entertaining puzzle to work with, and perhaps enough of an empty feeling to bring you back to the theatre for a second viewing. A second viewing shows the many layers of the film, and the intricacies and care taken in telling this wonderfully rich story. The film is about memory, revenge, and what drives us. It is about how memory is only perception, and how one has to take control, even though we realize that full control of any situation is not possible. The film asks what revenge is and when is justice satisfied. The film is about the personalization of raw emotions, as raw as emotions can get through storytelling. The film is about redemption and the balance of moving ahead while never forgetting the past. Ultimately, though, the film is about telling a really involving, well-thought-out, well-told, intricately put together story that is not only entertaining but is also thought-provoking, viciously self-aware, extremely perceptive and constantly a thrill. In short, it is a masterpiece of cinematic storytelling and an absolute gem of a film.
The anticipation that immediately comes to anyone who is buying this DVD is that there may be a feature that will allow a viewer to watch this movie in chronological order. While it is disappointing that such an extra is not included, a quick viewing of one of the few features on the DVD shows that it is not even necessary nor advantageous. The centerpiece of the DVD extras is a 20-minute Independent Film Channel interview with director Christopher Nolan. While relatively short, the interview is an excellent one that really doesn't waste any time in addressing the most interesting of topics regarding the film. In it, Nolan emphasizes that the structure of the film is as important as the film itself, as well as answering and mentioning some really interesting questions.
The other fascinating item is the original short story written by Jonathan Nolan, the director's brother, who originally came to Christopher Nolan with the idea. Most interesting is that the story and the film bear almost no resemblance to each other but are strong enough on their own, though personally, I much prefer the film. Other features include a throw-in tattoo gallery and your usual trailers and TV spots, scene selections, Web site and biographies of the stars and director.
Where the DVD excels is its dynamic menus. The menu is a motion menu that maintains the atmosphere of the film itself and adds a spooky tone to the experience. The transitions are interesting, to say the least. Clicking on one link will take you through several other screens before getting you to your destination. Constant navigation will not only cause the screen display to change, but it will also sometimes switch around your controls, making your up arrow move the cursor down and the opposite. While I didn't find any Easter eggs, my guess is that this DVD is full of them, and it's only a matter of time before someone catalogues all of them. The constant music and audio and the eerie motion menus make the experience of navigating the DVD the best since Fight Club. Appropriately, this again enforces the structure vs. content aspect of the film, making the DVD that much more appropriate.
The quality itself is excellent. The picture is crystal clear and the sound is impeccable, which is a refreshing change from the theater experience, which featured a quite uneven and muffled sound. The excellent score comes across beautifully because of this.
Overall, the DVD presentation fits really well with the film and even enhances the experience by providing better sound quality. The bonuses are excellent, but the disc could have used more features and disappoints in terms of quantity but not quality. The disc is a definite buy, considering how great the film and how solid the DVD transfer is.