The psychological thriller and neo-noir film Memento, directed and written by Christopher Nolan in 2000, was inspired by his brother’s short story Memento Mori. Nolan is known for his dark psychological thrillers that often have non-linear timelines. His films usually begin with the films end scene, and conclude with characters resolving or describing issues or events presented in the film but never fully explained. Nolan also has a recurring theme of justified dishonesty and vengeance for the death of a loved one in his films, which Memento is centered around. Nominated for two academy awards for Original Screenplay and Film Editing, this noir film low budget film follows main character Leonard Shelby on his quest for vengeance for the murder of his wife.
Leonard Shelby, a former insurance investigator, suffers from anterograde amnesia, short term memory loss in which he cannot make new memories, after he was injured while trying to stop two men from raping and killing his wife in their home. After he awakes to find one of the intruders, he later confirms his name is John G., got away he vows to find that man and get revenge for his wife’s death. This pursuit of revenge and justice is extremely difficult for Leonard who has to use aids such as Polaroids, notes, and extensive tattoos to help him keep track of things because he looses his memory about every fifteen minutes. These tools remind him of where he is, where he is going, and the purpose of his investigation. Leonard interacts mainly with two other interesting characters in the film: Teddy, an unjust cop who pretends to be Leonard’s friend while gaining money on the side and Natalie, a barmaid, who is seeking her own revenge for the death of her boyfriend.
Memento’s unique non-linear narrative structure actually matches the character of Leonard Shelby. Leonard remembers things in short increments of time but still maintains his investigation of his wife’s murderer, John G. So the audience will see the film like Leonard sees life, fragmented and out of order, but in the end come full circle with Leonard through multiple story plots, restrictive narration, and many close-ups of clues.
The way Memento was edited is what makes this film extremely distinctive from other films. Because the film has a fragment and non-linear structure it is told backwards with scenes jumping back in fifteen-minute increments of story time. This happens until the end of the film actually meets the beginning of the Leonard’s story. Everything in color is in a reverse order sequence plot and each scene signifies fifteen minutes of story time, which is generally how long Leonard’s memory lasts. The reverse order sequence scenes make up the main plot of Leonard’s investigation to find the man who killed his wife. These segments are separated by shorter segments of black and white scenes in chronological order that make up one sub-plot in which Leonard is continually talking on the phone to a mysterious cop. This sub-plot reveals the story of Sammy Jankis, a man like Leonard who has no short-term memory after an accident. Leonard uses Sammy as a way to explain his condition to those he meets. Leonard also uses Sammy as a crutch, because he feels he handles his situation better than Sammy because he knew his condition before his own accident.
Every few minutes the reverse order sequence is cut by a chronological sequence. In order for the film to remain comprehensive, Nolan used relational editing. He would connect two scenes of the reverse order plot by repeating the first few seconds of a scene in the conclusion of a scene that appears later in the film. In one instance, Leonard arrives at Natalie’s house. When she opens the front door for him he yells, “Natalie, right? Who the [expletive] is Dodd?” and shows a Polaroid of a man, named Dodd, with bloody nose and duck-taped mouth. That scene continues with Leonard spending the night with Natalie at her house after she explains who Dodd was. Ten minutes later, the film is further back in time from when Leonard asked Natalie that question. He is a hotel room with Dodd who Leonard has no recognition of, but the audience does, and he realizes he beat him up and quickly gets him out of town. After he deals with the Dodd situation, he arrives at Natalie’s house for answers yelling, “Natalie right? Who the [expletive] is Dodd?” In reality, the scene that appeared second in the film happened first, so by connecting the beginning and end of two scenes, the timeline stays in order even though it is edited out of order. The use of this repetition of key lines and themes help create familiarity to the story which is an important principle of film form to understanding the film.
Nolan uses non-linear narratives in films frequently, but he also uses restrictive narration along with it. Restrictive narration is when a film’s narration reveals one character’s thoughts and feelings, but not any other characters. This narration causes suspense in Memento because Leonard often does not even know where he is or what he’s suppose to be doing and his thoughts reflect his confusion to an audience trying to put the stories pieces together through Leonard.
Leonard’s character narrates the film in two different ways. In the reverse sequence, the scenes are narrated by his thoughts, almost always at the beginning of the scene. At the beginning of every one of these scenes, Leonard is starting a new memory, almost like he’s “waking up” from a dream. His thoughts help mostly help to stabilize the new setting he finds himself in. He repeats a lot of the same thoughts: “Awake. Where am I?” His thoughts also help the audience to know what he’s feeling during these scenes for character development and story progression even though the film is essentially being told backwards.
The second way the film is narrated is through Leonard talking on the phone during the black and white chronological order scenes. This gives the essence of noir film, a psychological thriller. He is giving the sub-plot story of Sammy Jankis to a mysterious cop. Through Sammy, he also gives insight to what his condition of anterograde amnesia is like and how he differs from Sammy. Later on, it is implied that Leonard is Sammy, and that his wife survived the attack. Leonard explains why people fake recognition to the cop on the phone: “You bluff it to seem less like a freak.” In this situation he is speaking about Sammy and himself, but in a split second the audience sees that Leonard is referring to one person, not two different people.
The second sub-plot is small in content but important to the films central theme of vengeance of a loved on. This plot focuses on the actual night in which Leonard loses his memory and his wife killed. This plot that actually happens outside of the story-time is revealed through flashbacks slowly and somewhat discreetly during the reverse order sequences. It begins as very small almost non-decipherable cuts of white bathroom walls, or of his wife screaming underneath a plastic shower curtain.
These flashbacks gain more time on screen as he tries to remember her while he’s alone, or talk about what happened to him with Natalie. Eventually we see the murder how Leonard believes it happened. After that some of Leonard’s memories change. His flashbacks return to being very miniscule cuts, but they become very similar to his recounting of Sammy’s situation than to his former memories. These new memories are also in color, not black and white, which is significant because Sammy’s entire story is told in black and white. In one instance later in the film, Leonard is on Natalie’s couch waiting for her to come back. A very quick close-up of a hand twirling an insulin needle flashes on screen and startles Leonard. He actually gets off the couch as his memory restarts and he has to try and remember where he is again. This conquers with the end of the film in which Teddy tells Leonard that he is Sammy.
The film revolves around Leonard’s unique memory condition, so his character must always pay attention to small details and take note of them. The cinematography of this film is important to story development, story unity, and establishing settings. Many key story elements are revealed through extreme close-ups. A key element of the story is Leonard’s Polariods. Leonard is constantly taking Polaroids of people, places, and things to help him remember. As he learns new information, he writes small notes on Polaroid. Certain Polaroids are more important to the story as a whole specifically because of notes he has on them, and when he added the note. The close-ups with extreme depth of field are often used whenever Leonard is looking at a Polaroid, but they are always used when he is making a note on one. One Polaroid is more important than the rest, the photo of Teddy. Having close-ups of Leonard adding three notes to Teddy’s Polaroid at three different parts of the story, demonstrates how significant that information is to the story.
Close-ups are used for examining Leonard’s extensive and elaborate tattoos. In order for the audience to be able to read the tattoos and gain vital information to Leonard’s investigation, a close up is essential. His tattoos are unique, like Leonard himself, and are mentioned quite a bit throughout the film. His tattoos are a narrative themselves, and although many things are not exclusively stated, the point still comes across strong through the close-up. The tattoo about Sammy Jankis is extremely critical to Leonard’s character because it reminds him of his situation and how he needs to use discipline and order differently that Sammy. His tattoos also draw suspense, like an instance where Leonard was talking on the phone to the cop and he uncovers a tattoo that reads, “NEVER ANSWER THE PHONE.”
This happens frequently in Nolan’s films, in which his close-up shots are essential to story progression and brings unity to events in the story that seemed out of place before.
Christopher Nolan’s uses the theme of vengeance for the death of a loved one the most frequently in this film; it is the driving force behind the entire non-linear narrative. In true Nolan form, the end of the film reveals a large character flaw in Leonard in the theme of justified dishonesty. Teddy confronts Leonard about who Sammy Jankis really is, and how he and Sammy Jankis are the really the same person. He tells Leonard that he has been lying to himself to be happy that he is constantly chasing a man who he believes is John G. even though that man is already dead. Teddy implies that Leonard created this alternate reality in which he peruses John G. so he does not have to cope with the fact that his illness killed his wife.
This justified dishonesty is multiplied ten-fold when Leonard gets in the car and asks himself, “Do I lie to myself to be happy?” In which, he admits he does and if he wants to find another John G., he will. He then makes Teddy his new John G. by creating a fact that will make him a prime suspect. Then Leonard allows himself to forget everything Teddy told him about himself. This is where the movie ends, but it explains why Leonard killed Teddy at the beginning of the film. It also changes the moral character of the protagonist and even change the way the audience sees the reverse order sequence of the narrative structure.
Nolan’s Memento used unconventional non-linear narrative structure to tell a compelling story of classic film noir. With distinct use of depth of field close-ups, restrictive narration, and distinctive story plots, Memento takes audiences for a psychological ride through the depths of Leonard Shelby and his quest for vengeance.