Follow TV Tropes


Film / Memento

Go To

"I lie here not knowing... how long I've been alone. So how... how can I heal? How am I supposed to heal if I can't... feel time?"

Memento is a 2000 neo-noir psychological thriller film written and directed by Christopher Nolan, and his first larger-scale production following his directorial debut Following.

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. (As such, 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:

  • 555: Teddy's phone number is 555-0134.
  • 6 Is 9: This kind of mix-up with the room numbers causes Lenny to bash a random motel resident in the face.
  • Abandoned Warehouse: The place where Lenny kills Jimmy and Teddy is an abandoned building outside of town, where drug deals used to go down.
  • 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.
  • Amnesiac Costume Identity: Downplayed. Leonard is wearing a formal suit for the majority of the film, which is revealed at the end to be Jimmy's, which Leonard naturally forgot soon after he donned the suit. When Teddy asks him where he got it, Leonard assumes he bought it with insurance money from his wife's death.
  • Amnesiac Protagonist Catalyst: Leonard goes hunting for the burglar who killed his wife and gave him amnesia, causing this trope to come into effect twice. It eventually unravels that this refers to two totally separate incidents: while Leonard does have amnesia from the burglary, his wife didn't die during that, the burglar is already dead, and Leonard himself accidentally killed his wife due to mixing up the doses of her medication thanks to his condition. His quest for the burglar is in fact a purposeful attempt to distract him from his own guilt, and he destroys the evidence that points towards himself so that the cycle can begin again.
  • Amnesiac Resonance: Deconstructed.
    • When Leonard recalls his insurance investigation of the anterograde amnesiac Sammy Jankis, 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; Leonard himself did by accident.
  • 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 to 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, then destroyed the evidence of "success" after the killings, then was driven to find a killer all over again. Teddy reveals that they killed the person who broke into Leonard's house a long time ago.
  • Anachronic Order: 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).
  • As You Know: Played With almost to the point of inversion. Due to his anterograde amnesia Leonard can never remember what (if anything) he's already told the people he meets, so usually repeats the same stories, often to the visible annoyance of the listeners.
  • Back to Front: 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 film jumps back and forth between plots enhance the disorientation caused by the reverse-order plot.
  • Bathroom Break-Out: Lenny escapes from the tattoo parlor through a backroom window.
  • Behind the Black: When Lenny starts the car, to his surprise Teddy comes out from behind the black and jumps right onto the hood.
  • 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: Leonard sets one up in his motel room, highlighting important people and places.
  • Brutal Honesty: The hotel receptionist admits he booked Leonard into two rooms to charge him a double fee.
    Leonard: At least you're being honest about ripping me off.
    Burt: Well, you won't remember it anyway.
    Leonard: You don't have to be that honest.
  • 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.
  • City with No Name: We never learn the name of the city the story is set in. Both California and Nevada license plates are seen, and there is a brief shot of a sign on a fence at the Burbank Airport, which is near Los Angeles.
  • 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.
  • Creative Closing Credits: The ordinary credits are immediately followed by... the same credits played backwards. And then comes The Stinger.
  • 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.
  • Destroy the 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.
  • 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 and he won't even have Teddy to direct him towards unsavory types. 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 and even those responsible for that were already killed by Leonard a year before the film. Damn.
  • Driven to Suicide: At least a theory from Leonard as to Sammy's wife's death- that she intentionally made Sammy overdose her to death because she felt guilty for not fully understanding his condition and making him take care of her the same way he would had he not had Anterograde.
  • Droste Image: While not in the film itself, the box art for the film depicts a Polaroid photo of Leonard that contains a smaller photo of Natalie that contains the same photo of Leonard, and so on.
  • 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 his note, 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 Leonard and the big reveal at the end (he has killed multiple people by the name of John G and he confused his own story with that of Sammy Jankis) is rejected by Leonard in favor of another lie.
  • 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.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: About two days, if you don't count the flashbacks to Sammy's story and the attack Leonard and his wife.
  • 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 remodeled some of the aspects of his life from before his amnesia struck as a way of dealing with the guilt of killing his wife.
  • Fiery Cover-Up: Lenny burning the polaroid of dead Jimmy.
  • 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).
  • Flashback: Sammy Jankis's story is told in flashbacks. Turns out those are Fake Memories.
  • Flashback B-Plot: The main story sees Leonard interacting with people around town, while the secondary story takes place at a different time and consists of shorter black and white scenes of him in his room talking about his condition. The two stories converge at the end, making the movie one story told from both beginning and end.
  • Flashback Cut: Throughout the film, Lenny experiences swift flashbacks to the fateful night and his wife.
  • Flashback-Montage Realization: When Teddy reveals that Sammy Jankis's story is really what happened to Leonard, moments from previous scenes are replayed now supporting that Leonard's wife survived the assault and was really killed when Leonard unintentionally overdosed her with insulin.
  • Flipping the Bird: Sammy does this to the guy conducting the experiment with the electrified objects.
  • Foregone Conclusion: "Teddy," AKA "John G" gets shot. This happens in the opening scene, whereupon the chronology slowly traces back to show why it happened.
  • Foreshadowing: Or shall we call it "backshadowing?"
    • Leonard mentions how facts like his pictures and their inscriptions are immutable, while memories can be distorted, even while he treats his own memories before "the incident" as ironclad and absolutely real. They're (probably) not.
    • One of Leonard's tattoos is backwards and he speculates that it's for when he's found his wife's killer. He is, in fact, correct - the tattoo is readable only when he's looking at the killer, i.e., at himself in a mirror.
    • A scene with a prostitute is a touching one, as it shows how Leonard is still devoted to his wife. It also demonstrates how adept at self-manipulation he is...
    • Natalie telling Lenny he won't even remember it if he kills his wife's murderer.
    • Natalie's name has the word "lie" right there in it, hinting that she's lying to Leonard.
  • 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.
    • In a flashback to Leonard pinching his wife's thigh, he's briefly seen holding a syringe.
  • Futureshadowing: Happens a lot throughout the movie due to the Anachronic Order in which we see events.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Having reached the ending, one might be justified to conclude that there are neither villains (apart from the criminals Leonard kills) nor heroes in this film.
  • 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 he got there.
  • Human Notepad: Lenny, of course, - to such an extent that he's probably a Trope Codifier.
  • Imagine Spot: Pay close attention in the last scene and there is a shot of Leonard, in bed with his living wife, and with all his tattoos including one that says "I'VE DONE IT" as well as the backwards tattoo that says "John G raped and murdered my wife". This is open to interpretation but it seems most likely that Leonard is imagining himself with his wife, after finishing his quest.
  • Infodump: The phone calls in the black & white portion provide lots of Exposition about Lenny's and Sammy Jankis' case.
  • In Medias 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: Leonard burns some personal items that belonged to his wife to evoke this trope. Of course, he soon forgets this, while the last permanent memory he has is his wife dying.
  • Jerkass: The clerk at the hotel, on being told of Leonard's condition, charges him twice for the room - and tells him that he's doing it, because Leonard won't remember it anyway.
  • Jigsaw Puzzle Plot: The reverse order of the story gives the audience the nature of Leonard's amnesia and the events he's been through a bit at a time.
  • Just Between You and Me: This backfires badly when Teddy explains how he's been manipulating Leonard. In revenge, Leonard writes down clues pointing to Teddy as the man he's been hunting.
  • 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 treat 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.
  • 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.
  • Memory Wipe Exploitation: Happens several times in the film. Leonard has no short-term memory, so he can only hold onto events for a few minutes at a time, then he has no idea that they happened. The landlord tricks Leonard into playing rent multiple times, Natalie tells him to his face that she's doing it, leaving him desperately searching for a pen to write that down before it fades and fails (since Natalie was savvy enough to hide her pens from him beforehand).
  • 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.
  • Monochrome Casting: One would expect to see non-white characters in a Californian smalltown, yet the cast is all white. The only exception to this trope is a quick shot of a black extra getting a door into his face.
  • Monochrome to Color: The film has two narrative threads, one running Back to Front in color, the other in chronological order and black and white. When the two meet near the end of the film, it switches from black and white to color over a shot of a Polaroid developing.
  • Mysterious Note: The hero receives a few of these. Some of them from himself, since he suffers from anterograde amnesia.
  • Newhart Phonecall: We don't hear the person talking on the other end of the line in the black & white portion. This leads to occasional Repeating So the Audience Can Hear.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Teddy's careless blunder in revealing that he is a John G, John Edward Gammell, leads directly to his own murder. Leonard finding this out allows him to, before he forgets, copy down the license plate so that his next investigation will lead to Teddy as John G.
  • Note to Self: 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 arm. 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. Well, maybe. It isn't made totally clear whether this actually is Once More With Clarity, or if the new scenes are just as fictional as the old ones.
  • Ontological Mystery: Each time Leonard has a memory break, which happens several times each day, he has to figure out where he is and what he's doing all over again, because he can never remember what he did only moments before.
  • 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, but he does not have sex with her. The point is to wake up after his memory loss and think that he had, in an effort to move on from his wife's death. Or to reenact a bedroom memory he had of her to jar more facts loose.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Used by Teddy when talking to Lenny in the car in front of Natalie's house.
    Teddy: Write...this...down.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: One could argue that there was one for Leonard's wife, as Lenny managed to - sort of - remember the repeated insulin injections after all...
  • Quest for Identity: This trope is deliberately inverted; the protagonist has anterograde amnesia.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: There is some reason to hope that the murder of Teddy will be Lenny's last, though other evidence might point to the opposite conclusion.
  • 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.
  • Rewatch Bonus: The film takes a whole new light when you watch it a second time around. Some of the characters' behavior, such as Natalie's initial attitude with Leonard, makes a lot more sense when you know the details.
    • Why does Teddy try and trick Leonard into switching cars, with Teddy getting the Jaguar? Because he likes Jaguars? No, because there's $200000 in the trunk of that Jaguar and Teddy knows it.
  • Right Through the Wall: When Dodd makes noises from inside the closet, Teddy's first assumption is "amorous neighbors."
  • 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 Jankis." This is Leonard's way of using his own condition against himself, to continue perpetuating the lie that is Sammy Jankis as a man with a similar condition. By putting it on his hand, he ensures he'll look at it every so often.
      • The way it's formatted to break up over two lines could just as easily be seen as a form of Evil Gloating (over himself!) Remember, "Sammy Jankis."
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Stealth Pun: Leonard's wife tells him "don't be a prick" in a flashback. It's later shown that Leonard killed her by repeatedly injecting her, or "pricking" her, and forgetting each time.
  • The Stinger: Played With. It's actually the opening scene played backwards (that is, played straight, because it was played backwards in the beginning of the movie).
  • String Theory: Leonard has a wall of Polaroids to keep track of his investigation.
  • They Died Because of You: Teddy claims that the story about Sammy Jankis killing his diabetic wife by giving her too much insulin was actually Leonard projecting what he did to his own wife over on Jankins. It is ultimately left as an Ambigious Situation though. Leonard denies that his wife was ever diabetic, and it is never answered clearly if Teddy is actually telling the truth.
  • Tuckerization: The mysterious killer character known only as "John G." was actually an homage to Jonathan Nolan's Georgetown University screenwriting professor at the time, John Glavin.
  • Twist Ending: Or "Twist Mid-way," or...something, whatever—anyway: The big Wham Shot revealing that the cop Lenny's meeting at the end of the black-and-white sequences is Teddy leads to a big avalanche of revelations that change everything we thought we could take for granted.
  • [Verb] This!: When Sammy does the experiment with the electrified objects and gets agitated when he is shocked, the guy conducting the experiment tells him that Sammy's only being tested, to which Sammy responds by flipping him off and saying "Test this, you fucking quack."
  • Wham Line:
    • When Teddy lays out the pieces for Lenny in the climax.
      Sammy didn't have a wife! It was YOUR wife who had diabetes!
    • And:
      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!
    • Inverted with "Don't believe his lies," in that instead of being a line that recontextualises parts of the story after it's spoken, it's a line that is known to the audience (and shown repeatedly) and clearly important to what's going on, but the line itself is completely recontextualised by what we learn why and when it was written. The movie makes it a point to show the words every time the protagonist alters his other notes in any way, but the reasonable assumption is there is something about Teddy that the movie is yet to show us. It turns out that the line hides a secret about Leonard, not about Teddy.
  • What Did I Do Last Night?: Constantly, to the point where it's more like "What Did I Do Thirty Seconds Ago?"
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Natalie uses this trick to make Lenny go after Dodd.

"Now, where was I?"