'Memento': Some movies are never forgotten

By Will Reilly
May 27, 2004

“Now … where was I?” – Leonard Shelby

The movie begins with the opening credits running over a man flicking a Polaroid picture. As the scene progresses, the picture quality of the Polaroid decreases until it finally disappears and the snapshot is inserted into the camera. It is the first tip-off this is no normal movie we are about to watch. The director is telling us we are watching a story told in reverse.

“Memento,” directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, Carrie-Anne Moss as Natalie and Joe Pantoliano as Teddy, is the story of an insurance investigator (Pearce) searching for the killer of his wife. Moss and Pantoliano play characters that may be helping or hindering his search. Pearce’s character, Leonard Shelby, is conducting his own private investigation. What complicates his search is the injury he received when he and his wife were attacked. Leonard suffers from anterograde memory dysfunction – the inability to make new memories – as a result of head trauma received during the attack. He can remember everything up to the attack, but since then, new memories fade after about 15 minutes.

The movie, released in 2001, generated a large box office return with minimal advertising. The movie created a fanatical following and an equally determined group of detractors. These two opposing groups center on the same issue: the manner in which the story is told.

The film is usually described as being told in 10-minute flashbacks, with each flashback illuminating the preceding scene. Yet this is just a half-truth. A separate narrative interspersed among the flashbacks moves in a forward, linear timeline. The two storylines finally converge to reveal the central mystery of the movie.

The flashback scenes are in color, while the chronological scenes are in black and white. Thus the movie alternates between flashback and chronological scenes, between color and black and white, until the forward story and the backward story converge and the black and white turns to color.

“We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.” – Leonard Shelby

Who am I? This question, in various forms, is posed through out the film. Who am I? What am I doing? What goals do I have? Leonard Shelby and others keep asking these questions in relation to Leonard. The answers highlight the importance of memory and the way that memory is an integral part of who we are. For Leonard, these questions serve as a necessary guide to direct and redirect his focus towards his goal.

His mirrors are his tattoos, his photos with handwritten notes, his police file and his map. His inability to make new memories has stopped his life. Each day, possibly several times a day, he starts from the point of having to remember his wife is dead. For him, the wound is ever fresh, the loss is new, the pain is sharp and piercing. Only his many notes remind him that it happened years ago.

For the audience, one realization derived from the film is the central part memory plays in making us who we are. Memory, so central to our perception of self, betrays Leonard. As he notes, he has lost his ability to live. In many ways, he died the night of the attack and is a living, breathing ghost doomed to wander seeking vengeance.

Time passes, memories fade, old wounds heal. For us, this is a part of the passage of life. Yet Leonard cannot experience this type of relief. For him, time has ceased to pass. He will maintain no memories beyond the attack and death of his wife. Thus his identity is now wrapped solely in that memory. He is now the eternal avenger, forever looking for the man who killed his wife. This is his one and only reason for living.

The mirrors he has chosen – the tattoos, the notes, the pictures, the memory of his wife dying – reflect this at him. His mirrors give his life meaning and direction. They also serve to guide him through everyday life. Things a normal person would remember, such as an appointment with someone, Leonard only “remembers” when he sees a note about the appointment as he starts to write down a tip about navigating through life. His notes, photos and tattoos control every aspect of his life. Yet this is also what allows him to persevere, permitting his mirrors, his memories, to give his life its limited direction.

To paraphrase Michael Crighton from his novel “Sphere,” memory is such an integral part of who and what we are as to be indistinguishable from our self. Personality derives in part from memory, our life is formed by memory, and society is built from the shared memory known as history. From Leonard’s perspective every day, each moment was immediately preceded by the attack. His new memories are preserved artificially, made up of photos with notes, tattoos and a map that attempts to arrange the photos in a meaningful relationship to one another. Life changes everyone, whether it is a change in career or marital status or lifestyle, and Leonard is no exception. Memories are among the fuels for this change. Actions are taken based on these memories, and we adapt and move forward. Leonard’s problem is that he is stuck in a kind of perverse “Groundhog Day,” as his injury does not allow him to move on.

“I guess I can only make you remember the things you want to be true.” – Teddy talking to Leonard

One problem Leonard is only partially aware of is his ability to be manipulated by others. Several times during the movie, this type of situation will confront Leonard. Yet he believes he has developed methods – the photos, notes, tattoos and instincts – that allow him to deal with these situations. In fact, at one point in the movie Leonard will knowingly manipulate himself. While the average person would remember what previously happened, Leonard is a prisoner of his photos and notes. For him, if it isn’t written down or photographed, it didn’t happen. And this becomes the key to his self-manipulation.

“Well, at least you’re being honest about ripping me off.” – Leonard talking to Burt

Mysteries can be and often are the most engaging type of film. The best are those that keep you guessing up to the final scene. “Memento” is that rare movie that keeps you guessing even after the credits have rolled. There are enough unanswered questions to provide fodder for many discussions. Not that the film doesn’t provide a clear ending; it does. But the ending opens the door to other questions. Without giving away plot points, consider where Teddy got the snapshot he had. Or wonder whether Teddy and Natalie knew one another. The movie suggests Teddy took the picture. The second question is never answered, although both Teddy and Natalie separately deny knowledge of the other to Leonard. Ambiguity is a part of everyone’s life. You will be talking about next week, next month and next year.

For those seeing the movie for the first time, I envy you for the unique thrill you are about to experience. For those seeing the film again, enjoy the nuances that only reveal themselves upon repeated viewing.

Will Reilly is a fraud investigator. He is currently working on a novel involving a phone call to a wrong number. You can contact him at

Related link: The official "Memento" site
Related link: "Memento" listing @ IMDb