A polaroid fades out of existence. Blood runs up the walls. The slow realization that what we are seeing is running backwards slowly builds over the opening credits until it all coalesces in a single moment of violence–a gunshot that created this mess we’ve been watching. The questions are immediate, primed as we are by movies. Who shot who? Why? Why is he calmly taking a picture of his murder?
Memento opens with the film in summation. It’s an eternal question of why, seeking and desperate from the first scene. We’re instantly thrown back to some other time, a story told in black and white. And when it’s over, we’re brought back to color, and the film tells a little bit of the questions we wanted answered earlier. We see the men pre-murder. We get some information about who they are. And then the scene brings us right back to that gunshot. We’re still left with questions. The black and white scenes feel like, in another movie, they’d answer us, but initially they are entirely displaced by time and subject.
Such is the puzzle of Christopher Nolan’s 2nd film, Memento. By now its structure is pretty widely known, a nonlinear approach to storytelling that starts at the end and keeps reaching further and further back, like waves on the shore. It seems almost easy, a decade later, to deride Memento‘s structure as a gimmick, but it really is the heart of the film, a puzzle whose very structure serves as more metaphor for our story than a device.
We’re introduced over time to Leonard Shelby. His wife was raped and murdered by a man the police couldn’t catch. So he’s set out to find and kill the elusive man, identifiable only by a few facts that Leonard has gathered over an undisclosed number of years. There’s one major catch: Shelby cannot form new memories from after his wife’s murder due to a head injury he suffered in the same attack.
It is the most unlikely of heroes, a man so brain-damaged that he constantly wakes up in rooms with amnesia, an oft-used noir cliche that becomes Shelby’s existential hell here. To remind himself of what he’s doing he takes pictures of people and writes notes upon them. If it is more important information such as rules to live by or the few pieces of evidence that he knows about the killer, he tattoos them on his body so he will always have them with him.
The entirety of Memento plays out with the pace of a methodical procedural, low on action and high on trying to suss out just exactly what is going on. The audience doesn’t know. Leonard doesn’t know. All we have are the clues he continually discovers, things left in his pockets or on his table, pieces he tries to put together on the fly. There are people drifting in and out of his life, and he’s written things about them on the backs of his photographs, but why? What caused him to write that someone was helpful, or another person was untrustworthy? Leonard doesn’t know, and neither does the audience, operating on blind faith that his system works.
Slowly as we drift backwards in time the reasons are revealed to us. Leonard is looking for John G., the man he’s been tracking for an amount of time even he couldn’t guess at. Teddy, the man who was shot at the opening of the film, seems like he’s trying to help but it seems untrustworthy. Or maybe we’re just primed by the photograph that says so. It’s hard to untangle the facts from the version of the truth we’re presented in these out-of-context moments. The audience is frustrated. Leonard is trapped in a constant state of seeking and not knowing, coasting by on hope and a certain blind pragmatism.
In between we’re presented with a story in the black and white scenes that we soon are able to place, through a tattoo that’s being made in these scenes and that already exists in the ‘present’, as taking place before the color scenes. In it, Leonard is presented as beset with paranoia. Someone’s manipulating him. He relates a story from when he was a normal person, an insurance investor, and the one man he met who had a problem just like his.
But that man seems like he could barely function, and Leonard’s off hunting down a murderer. Was this other man so much more worse off? Or is Leonard equally incapacitated, a mentally crippled man, dangerous in what he doesn’t know, running around playing vigilante?
Slowly the film unwinds itself, and a subplot that is closed out seems to appear. There was another man who disappeared, a man whose car and clothes Leonard has. A man whose girlfriend Natalie, played by Carrie-Anne Moss, takes to Leonard. Or maybe she’s simply manipulating him. We’re presented with truths that dissolve when we’re given more context. We say goodbye to characters we don’t know yet. We meet them with all the foreknowledge of how they will influence Leonard.
But these characters know this too. The front desk clerk at the hotel Leonard is staying at continually acts as if they’ve just met. Leonard explains his condition more than once, sometimes catching on from the clerk’s reaction and sometimes not that he’s being played. Who else is playing Leonard? We get the sense from the ‘past’ scenes that he’s convinced someone is manipulating the facts to get him to murder the wrong guy. But he’s forgotten this in the present. Truth for Leonard is only what he sees for the next fifteen minutes.
And by the time we reach the film’s conclusion, we’re left with an answer. An answer given to us by a character we know not to trust. A character that has lied through the entire film. Yet we’re so desperate for answers at this point–Leonard is so desperate–that all of us accept these revelations we’re given at the end of the film as truth. Who killed Leonard’s wife? Who is manipulating him? Why have people disappeared? All these are neatly tied up for us.
Too neat, perhaps, considering the complexities in the rest of the film. Rather uniquely, the audio commentary for the movie has three random commentaries of the ending. One is simply factual, talking about production, but the other two are specifically commentaries on what the finale means. One accepts the film at face value. We’re given the truth. Leonard seemingly acts upon it. The movie we’ve seen is set in motion. It’s a clever little hat trick of showing us the end before the beginning, and selling us a series of events that all hinge upon what’s set in motion in the end of the movie.
But the other commentary provides a more interesting interpretation. At the end of the movie, Leonard is told the ‘truth’ by someone who never tells the truth. It doesn’t matter what the pictures say, because we’ve seen time and again that the pictures are unreliable (though Leonard seemingly doesn’t know that.) But we’ve seen multiple interactions where the character lies and manipulates, given context Leonard doesn’t have. So why, in this moment where he has no reason to, would he tell the truth?
It presents a strange situation, in which we have a narrator so unreliable that we look to the structure of the film to provide us with answers, but that structure is only as good as what we see, and we’re never shown the truth. We are told, at the point we expect answers, something that might be true. But it might not. And it is that subjectivity that the entire film hinges around.
Memento is not a movie about a murder any more than it is about brain damage. It’s about our need to constantly seek for answers, and the reality that the answers both might not be there and might be wildly different or even conflicting depending on who is asking the question and when. This invalidation of grounded truth, of a reality that is unchanging and knowable, is the triumph of the film. And secretly, even Leonard understands that, as the final scene sees him doing what he knows he must, manipulating facts to alter his future behavior in the scant minutes he knows them.
We cannot know the truth, but we can cling to the truth we believe in. For Leonard that has to be enough because it’s all he knows. For us, we’re left holding the pieces to a puzzle that’ll never fit together. Questions with only possible answers, none of them seemingly more valid than the other. A metaphor for most of the truths we hold in life, structured in a puzzle box of a movie that brings us to the only thing we know which is that we know nothing.