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Watching ‘Memento’ Again for the First Time

An earnest attempt to navigate Christopher Nolan’s most circuitous film

(Newmarket/Ringer illustration)
(Newmarket/Ringer illustration)

Memento, Christopher Nolan’s breakout film from 2000, is fun to talk about. It’s fun because the movie is great, but also because everything turns very muddy very quickly. To wit, these are the points that need to be mentioned when you talk about it; they start out firm enough, but then everything goes to mush:

  • Memento ends where it starts, so really it’s just one big circle that keeps playing into itself forever.
  • The main character is Leonard (played by Guy Pearce and his teeth).
  • Leonard’s home was broken into.
  • During the break-in, his wife was raped and murdered.
  • When Leonard tried to stop the intruders, he had his head banged against a mirror.
  • The force of the blow caused him to suffer a bizarre form of memory loss where he became incapable of forming new memories.
  • He can remember everything that happened before the attack, but not anything after.
  • Now he can hold onto thoughts for only a few minutes at a time, after which things just sort of reset in his head and he starts over.
  • This is troubling for any number of reasons (he never knows who he’s meeting for the first time, he never knows why he is wherever he is, etc.), but mostly because he is the only one trying to figure out who raped and murdered his wife.
  • Leonard says two intruders broke in. In his recounting of the story, he killed one of them but was blindside-attacked by the other. The police believe there was only one intruder.
  • Leonard takes pictures using a Polaroid camera to help him remember.
  • He writes notes to himself on the pictures. (He trusts only his handwriting.)
  • He also gets tattoos on his body to help him remember the most important information.
  • Except here’s the thing: Leonard (we come to find out by the end of the movie) lies to himself.
  • He even leaves fake notes for himself.
  • He does so because he wants to give his life purpose.
  • Turns out, Leonard already caught and killed the second intruder.
  • Except here’s the other thing: Maybe his wife wasn’t even actually murdered. Maybe she survived.
  • Leonard tells a story about a guy who had a similar memory loss issue as him, and the story ends with the guy killing his wife by injecting her too many times with insulin shots.
  • Except here’s the thing: He might’ve been talking about himself the whole time. Maybe he killed his wife by accidentally injecting too many insulin shots into her.
  • Except here’s the other thing: Maybe his wife is still alive, and she knows about everything, including that he’s already killed the second intruder and avenged her rape.
  • Right as the movie is ending, while he’s driving a car, there’s a very quick cutaway shot (it’s maybe two seconds long) in which he closes his eyes and we see his wife lying on his chest rubbing her fingers across a tattoo that reads "I’VE DONE IT."
  • Earlier in the movie (which might’ve possibly been later, or potentially the exact same time), that space was empty and he told a woman he was going to get a tattoo there when he finally killed the guy he was chasing.
  • Except here’s the thing: Maybe the shot of Leonard’s wife lying on his chest was just a daydream, because at that moment he was in the middle of sorting things out in his head.
  • Turns out, everything is a haze.
  • Even though it’s all perfectly clear.
  • Turns out, this one guy (a crooked police officer named Teddy) has probably been using Leonard to capture and kill bad guys so Teddy can steal money from them.
  • Also: There are two different timelines.
  • The one from the past (which mostly consists of Leonard talking to an unnamed person on a telephone in a motel room) is shot in black and white. That one moves in a normal fashion, which is to say it goes from back to front, chronologically.
  • The timeline that represents the current version of things is shot in color, and it moves (a) from front to back, and (b) the way Leonard experiences things, which is to say it’ll start with him in a situation and he’ll have to figure why he’s there and what he’s supposed to be doing.
  • (For example, one scene starts with him running. He sees another guy running parallel to him. He asks himself who’s chasing whom. Then he runs at the other guy because he guesses he must be chasing him. The other guy immediately opens fire at him and runs at Leonard. Leonard realizes he’s the one being chased, not the other way around.)
  • During an interview about Memento, someone asked Christopher Nolan to draw the timelines as a graph so things could be clearer. This is what it looked like when he was done:
  • LOL.
  • Also: There are actually four timelines. (One is represented in that graph by the circle just above Nolan’s left shoulder, and the other is that squiggly line right next to it.)
  • Also: The thing about Leonard possibly killing his wife by injecting too many insulin shots into her might be a lie.
  • Teddy told Leonard he did it, but then Teddy also hinted that he might be making it up.
  • Also: One of the lies Leonard tells himself is that Teddy was the one who killed his wife, and so he leaves himself a note that will convince the future version of himself that Teddy was (is) the killer.
  • The movie actually begins with Leonard killing Teddy.
  • And then the movie ends with Leonard right at the moment when he decides he’s going to allow himself to make the future version of himself believe Teddy is the killer.
  • The two main timelines converge together right around that point.
  • Memento ends where it starts, so really it’s just one big circle that keeps playing into itself forever.

Now, if you’ve seen Memento, all of the bullet points above make total and complete sense and you looked over them and went, "Yup." (My best guess: [1] Leonard did not kill his wife. She was killed during the attack. The shot of her lying with him was something he was just picturing in his head. [2] Leonard had already killed the person who killed his wife by the time we see him in Memento. He’s chasing the wrong person for the whole movie. [3] Teddy was using Leonard to kill criminals.) If you’ve not seen Memento, however, all of those bullet points sound like gibberish and an impenetrable tangle of plot points and you looked over them and went, "… What?"

And, really, that’s what makes Memento so brilliant: It’s a complicated and intricate movie that is very easy to watch and to understand as you’re watching it, but one that becomes basically impossible to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it without sounding like a fool. There just aren’t a lot of movies that work that way.

That’s probably because there just aren’t a lot of directors like Christopher Nolan.