"Now, where was I?"Memento
is a 2000 Psychological Thriller
film written and directed by Christopher Nolan
. Many of Nolan's fans think of this film as one of his masterpieces.
Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce
) has a problem: during a robbery in which his wife (Jorja Fox) is killed, he suffers a blow to the head. The injury gives him anterograde amnesia — which means his brain can no longer record new long-term memories. He can remember the last five to fifteen minutes, and he can remember his life from before the injury, but everything in-between eventually...disappears. His life now consists of a hunt for John G — the person who killed his wife.
To find John G (and to simply function from day to day), Leonard employs a variety of reminders and notes to himself by way of Polaroids, tattoos, and other means both temporary and permanent. Of course, since he doesn't live in a perfect world, he comes across people who would love to help him find the killer — and take advantage of his condition in the process.
The film employs a unique timeline in that you see most of the movie in backwards chronological order (with distinctive anchor points allowing you to follow each scene), while sub-plot scenes of Leonard in a hotel (shown in black-and-white) run in chronological order to anchor the rest of the film. (The film ends in the chronological middle of the overall narrative.) This editing choice creates a mood and a storytelling method intended to match Lenny's condition.
Memento contains examples of the following tropes:
- Absence of Evidence: Leonard destroyed several documents, before the beginning of the film, which indicated that his wife's attacker had already been found and brought to justice. Furthermore, after Teddy shows him the photo he took of Leonard once the deed was done, he burns both it, AND the new photo he just took of the killed "John G.", to continue to delude himself into thinking his wife's killer was still at large.
- Accidental Kidnapping: Leonard wakes up in a hotel room and finds a gun in the desk drawer and a man gagged and bound in the closet. He knew what he was doing when he kidnapped him, but because of his condition he's constantly wondering what he did just moments before.
- All There in the Manual: Much of the backstory is only explained through the movie's promotional website, including Leonard sending himself messages to convince himself that there was a second burglar who murdered his wife, prompting his eventual escape from the institution he was in.
- Ambiguously Evil: Teddy is Leonard's only real friend, but is manipulating him for his own ends. At the end he claims that he helped Lenny get revenge on the original John G. and has been trying to help Leonard cope with his amnesia. Even then we don't find out whether he's telling the truth or not, leaving Teddy's true motives ambiguous.
- Amnesia Danger: At one point, Leonard assumes he's chasing a man until said man starts shooting at him, at which point he realizes that the man is chasing him. He escapes, but upon having reached the hotel room of the man, he hides in the bathroom and prepares to ambush his quarry with a wine bottle. However, he forgets why he is there as well and assumes he was about take a shower, leaving him unprepared for when the enemy does arrive.
- Amnesia Loop: Implied to have happened several times with Leonard. Leonard is implied to have killed several people who he thought killed his wife, than destroyed the evidence of "success" after the killings, then was driven to find a killer all over again. If Teddy is to be believed, they killed the person who broke into Leonard's house a long time ago and on top of that, its actually Leonard himself who accidentally killed her, though she's as much to blame.
- Amnesiac Resonance: Deconstructed.
- When Leonard recalls his insurance investigation of the anterograde amnesiac Sammy Jenkins, he notices that Sammy shows signs of recognition when Lenny greets him, and sees it as proof that he's pulling a scam. After suffering brain damage himself he realizes that Sammy was faking recognition, not the disability. He was trying to blend in and seem less helpless.
- Leonard himself is revealed to have developed this, and it's only made things worse. He's become an amnesiac serial killer by learning through repetition. He rewrites his own history to create an elusive quest for his wife's killer and repeating it over and over again to give himself purpose in life. The guy has in fact been dead for years and didn't kill her; Lenny himself did by accident.
- Anachronic Order: The film alternates between two plot streams, one told in normal chronological order, the other in reverse to highlight the character's memory disorder. The jumps back and forth between plots enhance the disorientation caused by the reverse-order plot.
- Back to Front: The majority of the film is shown in reverse order. These scenes alternate with shorter scenes arranged chronologically. The two plot threads meet at the end of the film (which is the chronological middle of the story).
- Best Served Cold: Lenny's only motivation is to kill the man who murdered his wife. Assuming she was even murdered by the man, and not killed by Leonard giving her too many insulin injections.
- The Big Board: Lenny sets one up in his motel room, highlighting important people and places.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Natalie seems like a nice girl at first, but then is revealed to have taken advantage of Leonard. She continuously insulted him and called his wife a whore, then manipulated him into thinking that he needed to get rid of Dodd (while rubbing it in his face). Turns out to be subverted later on when it's revealed that he actually killed her boyfriend, which she knew all along.
- Burn Baby Burn: Lenny disposes of several of his late wife's belongings this way.
- The Call Has Bad Reception: This is the basis of the plot. Having accepted The Call from himself to find his wife's killer, Leonard's anterograde amnesia and Notes To Self lead to all sorts of problems - some accidental due to his memory problems, but some deliberate due to his Memory Gambit.
- Couldn't Find a Pen: Averted, where Leonard is stuck without a pen and desperately needs to write something down, but doesn't manage to find a workable substitute. However he does tattoo himself as a way to remind himself of important information.
- Country Matters: That's how Natalie finally gets Leonard to snap and punch her.
- Criminal Amnesiac: Deconstructed. Several people try to use Leonard Shelby's anterograde amnesia by setting their enemies up to look like John G., the man whom Leonard is planning to kill for raping and murdering his late wife. At the end it's revealed that Leonard has been playing himself as well by killing fake John G.'s to give himself purpose in life.
- Deliberately Monochrome: One thread of the movie is monochrome and the other is in color. The trope is played with very well when the plot threads' meeting point coincides with a developing Polaroid photo.
- Dirty Cop: Teddy claims to be an undercover cop, but he's not above facilitating vigilante justice by helping Leonard find John G. (who killed Leonard's wife), and uses Lenny to murder people for profit.
- Disability Superpower: The amnesiac Leonard is described by another character as the perfect assassin - since he can't remember ever having killed anyone, he doesn't act like his targets expect an assassin to act and feels no guilt afterwards. His partner keeps setting him up to kill people and they never see him coming.
- Downer Beginning: You see Leonard kill Teddy despite his protests, and then you have to spend the rest of the movie watching the poor guy interact with Leonard.
- Downer Ending: At the end of the movie, you discover that Leonard is basically a Serial Killer, even if he doesn't remember any of his previous kills. Which is sad. But it's even sadder when you realize that at the end (which is the beginning of the movie) he killed the only person who had him in check. And because he doesn't remember a thing (assuming he doesn't tell himself he finally "succeeded" in some message), he will continue to seek revenge, killing we don't know how many people in the process. Revenge for nothing, of course, since his wife didn't die in the attack at all, but was accidentally killed by Leonard, in the way he believes Sammy's wife died. Damn.
- Dream-Crushing Handicap: Leonard has lost his capacity for short-term memory and is repeatedly told by the other characters that his going on a quest to avenge his wife's murder is a fool's errand since, even if he does manage to succeed, he won't remember it anyway and thus won't derive any emotional closure from it. As the ending reveals, it's even worse than that. He already DID avenge his wife, failed to receive the closure he wanted but kept on hunting anyway until he mistakenly killed someone completely unrelated to his wife's murder. The film ends with him starting his investigation all over again, with the strong implication that he'll kill at least one more person before he's finished.
- Droste Image: While not in the film itself, there's the box art◊ for the film.
- Dynamic Entry: Subverted in one of the only funny moments in the movie. Leonard knocks on a guy's hotel room door, and kicks the door open and knocks him out as soon as he looked through the peep-hole. Then Leonard looks at the unconscious man, and realizes that he just kicked in the wrong door.
- Easter Egg: The DVD is full of them, including one that even lets you watch the film in chronological order.
- The Ending Changes Everything: Characters are always lying to Lenny and the big reveal at the end ( Lenny has killed multiple people by the name of John G. and he confused his own story with that of Sammy Jankis) is left vague on whether or not it is the truth or just a time stalling story.
- Expo Label: A variant is used when Leonard has to carry polaroids of everyone with labels like "Don't believe his lies", because he is unable to form any long-term memories.
- Fake Memories: It turns out that Leonard, unable to make new memories since being attacked, has not only been intentionally lying to himself in order to give himself fake clues to get revenge on people he's taken a dislike to in the last five minutes... but he's also purposefully remodelled some of the aspects of his life from before his laser guided amnesia struck as a way of dealing with the guilt of killing his wife.
- Femme Fatale: Natalie.
- Film Noir: Put in chronological order, the film's events are that of a fairly straightforward Noir plot of a regular guy turned sap (and, quite potentially, fall guy).
- Foregone Conclusion: "Teddy", AKA "John G" gets shot.
- Freeze-Frame Bonus:
- While Lenny is narrating the story of Sammy Jankis, a shot of Sammy sitting in a nursing home briefly changes to a shot of Lenny in the exact same spot and clothing.
- John Edward Gammell (John G)'s number plate goes through several iterations over the course of the film, and Leonard's writing of it is ambiguous - 1's are frequently replaced with I's and vice-versa.
- Futureshadowing: Happens a lot throughout the movie due to the Anachronic Order in which we see events.
- Given Name Reveal: At the end, it's revealed that Teddy's real name is John Edward Gammell, meaning that he too is a John G, and therefore a candidate for Leonard's hit list.
- Grievous Bottley Harm: Leonard smashes Dodd over the head with a wine bottle he finds on the toilet, but it doesn't break. It does knock Dodd out, though.
- Harassing Phone Call: The protagonist gets several of these, despite one of his rules being 'don't answer the phone', as due to his lack of long-term memory he'll forget who he's talking to. When he does remember to ask, the caller hangs up.
- How We Got Here: The film is entirely based on this device. The movie starts at the end and then goes through each previous scene in backwards order, establishing... well ...how he got there.
- Human Notepad: Leonard uses tattoos as a Note to Self to make up for his inability to form new memories.
- In Media Res: The film basically starts over In Medias Res every three minutes. The main character can't form new memories, and so the entire story takes place backwards so that the audience has the same kind of experience that the main character does.
- Insistent Terminology: It's "Leonard", not "Lenny".
- Invulnerable Knuckles: The scene where Natalie gets Leonard to go after Dodd has a shot of Leonard feeling his hands. In the next color scene (movie time), he had punched Natalie after being provoked into doing so, but forgets this by the color scene described here.
- Irrevocable Message: Lenny sends himself messages which —5 seconds later— are too late to take back, because he won't remember why he wrote them (and believes his own handwriting implicitly). This drives the plot of the color portion of the movie, where he convinces himself to tattoo Teddy's license number on his thigh. Then again, he actually does mean what he's writing when he writes it - but given his condition, he's a new person every 15 minutes, constantly having to contend with whatever the "previous" person had in mind.
- It's All Junk: Lenny tosses several of his wife's belongings into a fire.
- The Killer In Me: Leonard has frequent short term memory loss, and is trying to find the man who killed his wife. In the end, he accidentally killed his wife through an insulin overdose, and chose to preserve his sanity by rehearsing a story that it all happened to someone else, called Sammy Jankis. So now he chases criminals in revenge for an act he himself committed. Maybe.
- Laser-Guided Amnesia: AVERTED!!! In fact, one of the few films that treats amnesia anywhere near realistically.
- Leaning on the Fourth Wall:
- In an early scene, Leonard explains his condition to Burt, who comments that suffering from anterograde amnesia must be bizarre in that someone afflicted with the condition might have an idea of where they want to go next but not remember where they just came from, in essence living their life "backwards". This line of dialogue helps to explain the film's narrative structure to the audience as a means of representing Leonard's mental state.
- In a flashback, Leonard remembers his wife re-reading a dog-eared book that she has read so many times the cover has fallen off. He mocks her for it, observing that he always thought the pleasure of reading a book was in wanting to know what happened next. Of course, the film itself is based on the idea that the audience always knows what happened next and the pleasure is in finding out what happened beforehand.
- Living Lie Detector: Leonard learned to do this before his injury as an insurance claims investigator. As such, it is extremely difficult to deceive him in a face to face conversation. Or so he believes.
- The Lost Lenore: Leonard's dead wife, whom he couldn't save from being killed in the home invasion that left him with brain damage.
- Manipulative Bitch: Natalie ends up manipulating Leonard into thinking that Dodd assaulted her and that he needs to get rid of him. Turns out to be justified later on as Natalie has good reason to hate Leonard.
- Meta Casting: The film required a Smug Snake type character for the antagonist, so they hired Joe Pantoliano, whose career is virtually nothing but. Except, of course, that his character is innocent of the crime he's killed for in the film's opening. The role relies heavily on his typecasting to make the audience assume he's the bad guy, when he's the closest thing the protagonist has to a real friend. Virtually anyone but a typecast actor would have given the audience room to doubt.
- Mind Screwdriver: The plot makes sense on its own (as long as you can keep up with it), but the website gives an awful lot of backstory (including spoilers) that lend a much fuller understanding.
- Mysterious Note: The hero receives a few of these. Some of them from himself, since he suffers from anterograde amnesia.
- Note to Self / Memory Gambit: Pretty much Leonard's only way of functioning from day to day.
- Oh, Crap: Leonard is talking on the phone when he notices a large bandage on his leg. He continues talking as he absentmindedly peels back the bandage, and he sees that he has a fresh tattoo underneath. The tattoo reads NEVER ANSWER THE PHONE! The look on Leonard's face is priceless. "Who is this?" <click>
- Once More with Clarity: Used at the end. Previous flashbacks involving Sammy Jankis and Leonard's wife are repeated with small alterations. It isn't made totally clear whether this really is Once More With Clarity, or if the new scenes are just as fictional as the old ones.
- Ontological Mystery
- Painting the Medium: The reason for the use of Anachronic Order in the film. Leonard cannot form new memories, and so cannot remember the events which immediately preceded the events he currently finds himself in. Similarly, the audience encounters each new scene ignorant of the events which preceded it.
- Platonic Prostitution: At one point Leonard hires a prostitute to impersonate his wife, but he does not have sex with her.
- Posthumous Character: Leonard's late wife, who exists only in his memories anymore.
- Quest for Identity: This trope is deliberately inverted; the protagonist has anterograde amnesia.
- Real Is Brown: The film uses mostly muted tones and director Christopher Nolan originally intended it to have a completely blue pallette, but included greens and greys as well. The scenes that take place in chronological order are in black and white.
- Reverse Whodunnit: The movie plays the hell out of this trope. We see who (supposedly) was the murderer and so does Lenny in the very first scene. However, the film goes in reverse, and then with him only remembering scenes in several minute intervals, as we see the outcome and learn the clues as he does while already being "spoiled" to the ending, because of it going in reverse. For the first half, the viewer is able to string together the various short bits of color and he is not, involving quite a bit of mental work, but we still know more than he does because we can remember it. However, at the halfway point, all hell breaks loose and the people we and Lenny learn to trust and not trust every few minutes may not be as they seem, especially Lenny himself.
- Room Full of Crazy: A much more portable and practical version of this is presented in the form of Leonard's tattoos.
- "Don't believe his lies. He is the one - KILL HIM!"
- Even worse, but seemingly more innocent: "Remember Sammy Jenkis." This is Leonard's way of using his own condition against himself, to continue perpetuating the lie that is Sammy Jenkis as an existing person. By putting it on his hand, he ensures he'll look at it every so often.
- Self-Serving Memory: Lenny's false memories of Sammy Jenkins's condition and his wife's diabetes can be regarded as this.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Leonard's wife already died years ago from an insulin overdose administered by Leonard himself. His quest for revenge is based on a lie that has left numerous innocent (if not necessarily 'clean') people dead. Teddy, the only person who still had some hold over Leonard and who revealed all of this to him, ends up getting a bullet to the head for his troubles by Leonard using himself as a hitman.
- Shown Their Work: Several psychologists have complimented this film for having one of the most accurate portrayals of amnesia and memory.
- Six Is Nine: This kind of mix-up with the room numbers causes Lenny to bash a random motel resident in the face.
- Skeleton Keycard: Leonard uses this tactic to break into a motel room.
- Speech-Centric Work: At its core a Psychological Thriller, it is nevertheless driven forward primarily by dialogue. Roughly half of the film, for example, consists of the protagonist sitting in a hotel room providing an unidentified character with Backstory over the phone.
- Spell My Name with a Blank: Leonard Shelby's much sought after nemesis, John G_____. It's later revealed that John G. doesn't really exist, as Leonard edited the police files that Teddy gave him to make the name so generic that it could apply to thousands of unrelated people.
- Subliminal Seduction: After his wife's death, Sammy is shown sitting in a mental institution. Briefly, just after someone walks in front of him and before the scene cuts back to Leonard on phone, Sammy's character is actually replaced by Leonard sitting in the same chair.
- They Died Because of You: Leonard eventually finds out from Teddy that Leonard's wife was a diabetic and that the story he made up about "Sammy Jenkis" killing his wife by giving her too much insulin was actually a self-protecting projection of what he did.
- Tragic Villain: Leonard is basically a serial killer, but he'll never realize what he's truly become; he simply cannot remember anything afterwards and knowingly manipulates himself by leaving behind fake clues to kill people.
- Treacherous Advisor: Teddy Gammel. Complicated because his intentions aren't purely evil. While he's manipulating Lenny for his own purposes, he also does it to help Lenny function in daily life, and Lenny is also manipulating himself into killing innocent people just so he has a purpose in life. Teddy is a smug and greedy enabler, while Lenny is a willing serial killer... and tragically doesn't even remember it.
- Unreliable Narrator: The protagonist suffers from anterograde amnesia, so his memory is extremely limited. The protagonist in fact makes deliberate use of his condition in order to deceive and manipulate himself. It's also revealed that the memories he does have are heavily distorted.
- Unwitting Pawn: Natalie and Teddy just love using the protagonist's short-term memory in order to manipulate him and at the end, or rather, the middle, we learn that he actually manipulated "himself" into shooting Teddy by leaving indications that he was John G.
- Victory Guided Amnesia: A variation is used, but only because the main character suffers from short-term memory loss.
- Villains Never Lie: Teddy tells Leonard that Leonard killed his own wife with an insulin injection, and now he continues to search for a new murderer time and again in order to have some meaning to his life. We don't know if Teddy is really a villain, or whether he says the truth or not, but this is the second-to-last scene (or is it the second scene?), so we tend to believe him. Not to mention the whole self-manipulation twist-ending.
- What Did I Do Last Night?: Constantly, to the point where it's more like "What Did I Do Thirty Seconds Ago?"
- Wham Line:
- When Teddy lays out the pieces for Lenny in the climax.
Sammy didn't have a wife.
Leonard: When it's done, I'll know! It'll be different!
Teddy: I thought so too! I was sure you'd remember. But you didn't!
- What You Are in the Dark: Because the protagonist can't remember anything for more than a few minutes lots of people are rude to him or openly take advantage knowing he won't remember. Including himself.
- Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Natalie uses this trick to make Lenny go after Dodd.