Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan (short story)
Stars: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano
“Memento rides Oscar momentum so, hurry, catch it up on the big screen. See if you can figure out who killed Lenny’s life —— oops, I meant wife.”
By the end of Memento, I felt like I was inside Lenny Shelby (brilliantly played by the stunning Guy Pearson), an insurance agent who can’t form new memories after his wife dies in a bizarre accident. I wasn’t sure who had done what to whom or if what I’d seen had happened at all. But if you were to ask me what I’d seen as we walked out of the theatre, I’d give you a good story and believe it myself. In spite of my certainty that I couldn’t know anything for sure, I’d act as if I did. And soon you would join me figuring out whether we were in or out of sync with reality, both of us driven by a mysterious force to make sense out of what we’re talking about.
Lenny Shelby, believes that if he can – somehow – find out who murdered his wife. Then he can – somehow – kill him. And then he can – somehow – restore his peace of mind. Find the killer and kill him. That’s the simple story of Memento. Before his wife died, Lenny had a life – a routine, love and confidence. Now he has motel rooms, friends he doesn’t recognize and an identity he can’t be sure of. If he can just find the man who murdered his wife, he believes he can get back what he’s lost, his true reality. Lenny is desperate, crazily searching for a sense of himself that once seemed god given, natural and forever.
At its core, however, Memento opens up into a larger story, yielding a rare peek into a quest usually hidden from view, buried deep in the unconscious. It’s as if Lenny meets the Sphinx, a fabulous being of several heads, various animals and the snapping tail of a dragon. The Sphinx is said to watch over an ultimate meaning that must remain forever beyond the understanding of man. Lenny searches for the secret of sanity in a world of shifting images, messages and recollections. Perhaps his true quest is for an answer to an ancient riddle –— “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it fall, does it make a noise?” Lenny may say “the world doesn’t just disappear when you close your eyes” but for him, events disappear minutes after they’ve occurred. And then what evidence can he possibly use to prove an event ever happened? Testimony from someone who was there? Did the murder of his wife actually happen —— and did it happen the way he thinks it did? The tree fell but did it make a noise if he can’t remember what happened?
Across Lenny’s chest, there’s an indelible tattoo of a fact he doesn’t want to forget —— “John G raped and murdered my wife”. But he —— and we —— can only read the message when he looks in the mirror, at a possibly soulless, two-dimensional reflection of himself. Hope and rage drive Lenny to compulsively track his wife’s killer, never doubting that he’s progressing toward recovery of his loss. If the killer can be stopped, he can get his life back. He believes killing the killer is the key to recovering his ability to make new memories and his sanity. I found myself dropping logic and entering Lenny’s frustration at not being able to remember events, his handwriting the sole clue that he once believed what he’d written. As Lenny moves through collapsing reflections captured quickly by a Polaroid camera, only his burning desire to find his wife’s killer holds him together.
Lenny justifies his drive for revenge in an intense speech to Teddy (Joe Pantoliana) —— a sinister, ever-confounding friendly cop who plays as good a demon of confusion as you’re ever going to see outside your own mind. “How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?”, Lenny argues. Cultural as well as ephemeral, time is critical to sanity. But feeling time is an invention of a mind plagued by its loss. It may be romantic to think of living continually in the moment, never besieged by an emotional invasion from the past. But being in the moment takes on new meaning when memory fails, disconnecting past from present and present from future, leaving its owner stranded in between. Without the ability to form new memories, Lenny’s like a naked man in a dream, exposed and defenseless. It’s a frightening realization. One who can’t keep track of what’s happening can be easily led down dangerous paths.
The extent of Lenny’s vulnerability becomes wrenchingly apparent when he can’t discern that Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), the flawed beauty behind a bar who invites him home has just served him a pint of beer that she, a stranger and he himself has spit in. And Natalie doesn’t stop at teasing. She tricks and exploits him, becoming a vehicle for propelling him deeper into the spiraling whorl of reflections that he believes is his salvation. Mementonow asks a harder question of the Sphinx than the first one —— “if a man were there when the tree fell but doesn’t remember the noise the tree made when it fell, what’s going to happen to him?” In other words, what happens when the psyche can’t, won’t or doesn’t —— for any reason whatsoever —— keep up with the bombardment of information most of us find common to everyday modern living?
I believe Memento may be visionary, bringing to light a palpable fear barely speakable, perhaps only askable to ourselves in the morning mirror when the answer lies buried beneath a need to get on with the day. This isn’t about Alzheimers; Lenny is a young man. This is about a loss of memory from an unknown source, not far from something we all experience from time to time. Lenny struggles to keep track of what’s required and what’s needed to navigate practicalities as well as achieve his goal. He’s lost “it“, whatever “it” is that makes it possible to keep up a pretense of sanity. We all fake recognition of name, a person or an object when we feel on the spot. As long as we can remember what’s expected, we’re in the game. Our recognition of protocol provides protection, a thin line but still solid. However, danger lurks nearby; will we soon mistake the ad showing a hamburger for the real thing and try to eat the menu? Layering the murder of Lenny’s wife with an obliteration of short term memory, Memento poses yet another a pressing question of modern times, “of what do we become capable and of what do we become victim without the ability to form new memories?”
Certainly Memento qualifies as a complex murder mystery. I’m still trying to figure it out. Christopher Nolan who won numerous awards from his screenplay cleverly structures the film to keep multiple possibilities vying for truth right up to the end. Track Lenny’s system. Don’t miss the tricky turns. And you will also tap into the profundity of the questions raised byMemento, asked of the Sphinx —— the one who lies behind the doors of perception. Lenny’s plight rouses alarm for what happens when memory loses its race with time. It’s as if a silent killer lies in the psyche, capable of wiping out a security once taken for granted. Lenny himself may be the one he seeks. That is, the one suffering may be the one guilty. Diving into the fearsome depths of death by memory loss throws Memento into a chasm of human mystery far beyond Lenny’s drive for revenge.
Restore your own memory after watching Memento; watch it again. The murder, like Guy Pearson’s fine physique, acts like a pair of broad shoulders from which a tailored suit hangs in perfection, taking you – not just Lenny – on a trip across a threshold from which you will return, changed and thoughtful. Memento is nothing if not a gift of effect —— engaging us directly in our primary need to track events in order to feel safe.