Memento movie directed by Christopher Nolan was released on 25th May 2001. It was based on the short story “Memento Mori” written by Jonathan Nolan (brother). To date, Memento movie remains one of the most mind-boggling plots (like The Sixth Sense, Inception, or The Shawshank Redemption) which makes one scratch head at the revelation.
After giving the movie two to three watches (which you will surely need when you see the climax the first time), One begins to think about the puzzling revelation made at the end. Surely there are still few questions that arise in the mind. But for that, we need to dive into the plot itself. (Spoilers alert: the plot of the movie will be discussed so if you haven’t watched the movie you can skip the blog session and read our MovieQuote section and Memento quotes).
Memento’s unique storytelling style
Contents of this Article
Firstly what one realizes is the special story-telling of the movie itself is puzzling. One will notice that story is basically told in two different tracks. One that is in color and the Second that is in Black & White Sequence. The color sequence runs backward in the story (roughly 5-minute intervals) and the B&W story runs forward and both sequences runs alternatively. For better understanding refer to the images given below where the B&W sequence is denoted by B1 to B22 and the color sequence is denoted by C1 to C22.
The first image shows how the actual story runs through time and the second image shows how it is presented to us in alternate color and B&W frames.
The Memento story simplified
The color story:
Giving two to three viewings to the movie, the storyline of color frames can be simplified as follows:
- Leonard (Guy Pearce) is a former insurance agent whose wife is raped and murdered in an assault.
- During the assault, Leonard killed one of the attackers and the other fled away but in the process, Leonard faced a head injury and now he is suffering from a condition called “Anterograde Amnesia”, meaning he cannot make long-term memories. His memories before the assault are intact. He cannot feel the passage of time, so her wife’s death is always fresh to him.
- As he cannot remember things for more than barely 15minutes, he always takes notes, photos, body tattoos to keep a track of what’s happening around him.
- And of course, he is desperate to find and kill his wife’s murderer.
- In the beginning scene of the movie, he thinks he has found the killer Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and kills him. That’s the beginning of the movie when this scene rolls literally backward and then the movie goes on with one color and one B&W sequence.
- Then the color sequence keeps rolling backward to unfold the story that how Leonard reached the point of pinpointing the killer of his wife.
- He has a clue that the killer’s first name is John or James with last name G. He also has the license plate number of the killer (he thinks) from which he tracks the owner (With help of Natalie (Carrie Anne mos) who in the process takes advantage of his condition and uses him to settle her personal scores with his boyfriend Jimmy).
The Black & White story:
Similarly Black & White story may be summarised as follows:
- Black & White story is with the self-narration of Leonard himself in the background.
- Leonard keeps reminding himself and the others about Sami jankis, a case he investigated and rejected during the life as an insurance investigator. Sami jankis had the same condition (Anterograde Amnesia). But Leonard felt it was not a physical problem but a psychological issue, so he rejected his claim.
- Sami Jakis’s wife was unable to deal with the situation and was to make sure Leonard is right and her husband (Sami jakis) is faking his illness; She puts herself on line; being diabetic she lets Sami give her back to back insulin shots in quick succession and check whether Sami is able to remember the previous dose. In doing so she gets satisfied that her husband is not faking the memory thing but dies due to insulin overdose.
- Leonard keeps telling “The Sami Jakis” story to himself and to others as part of a thing called “Learning through repetition” and keeps reminding himself that if Sami Jakis controlled the same mental issues, he can too.
The climax unfolding story:
At the climax when we reach scene B22 and C1 (Refer Images) of B&W and Color sequences, both timelines hook into each other. In a scene (B&W) when Leonard enters an abandoned building to kill Jimmy a drug dealer (Leonard is used by Natalie to do so) and the scene turns Color which inturn clears out timeline understanding (Again please refer to both images above).
- Here Leonard kills Jimmy (a drug dealer with 200 grand cash in his car) and Teddy (policeman and Leonard’s friend) enters the scene. But Leonard doesn’t recognize him.
- Then Teddy reveals to him that he as a policeman helping him to track down his wife’s killer. In fact Leonard has already killed his wife’s killer a year ago with Teddy’s help.
- Teddy shows Leonard’s photo being happy after taking revenge and pointing at his breast tattoo.
- Teddy clarifies to Leonard that as he couldn’t remember that he has already avenged his wife; he keeps chasing John Gs or James Gs. Leonard himself has created puzzle for himself which he can never solve (By tearing down 12 last pages of police file copy he has).
- This in turn gives A Sense of purpose to Leonard’s life Or Reason to live for him. So Leonard keeps finding the guy he already killed a year ago.
- Teddy also reveals to Leonard that there no such person as sami jankis he always talks about. Its Leonard’s wife who died of insulin overdose as she was checking on Leonard’s memory condition.
- Then Leonard comes out of the abandoned building and sits in his car thinks about the situation and tells himself “Can I let myself forget what Teddy just told me?”. And as Teddy’s original name is “John Edward Gammel” A John G he can again look for; Leonard decides to lie to himself by again giving himself a target to chase.
- So he notes down Teddy’s Truck license plate so that he can begin his hunt again.
- This in turn completes the story with the first scene of the movie where he kills teddy.
The Confusion of Memento’s climax
Now as a curious movie geek, if you watch it couple of times, the questions come to mind are:
- What is the ultimate truth of Leonard’s wife’s killer?
- Is Teddy telling Leonard the ultimate truth or he is just manipulating him and using him for his own gains? (200 grands of drug deal)?
- Did sami jankis killed his wife with insulin or was it Leonard himself?
To find out that, we can think about both scenarios:
If what teddy is telling Leonard is true then:
- Leonard has “Anterograde Amnesia” so he cant make fresh memories, but his memories prior to assault are intact. So He cant get confused about her wife being diabetic.
- He gets confused when teddy tells him and tries to remember himself giving insulin shot to her wife but immediately memory reflects him just pinching her wife.
- So its just teddy here who is trying to manipulate his memory.
- The Sami Jakis case he tells everyone about is from his past i.e. event prior to assault on his head. So that must be true.
- Teddy looks at the bag full of 200 grands of money in Jimmy’s truck while trying to convince Leonard in last minute sequences.
- So may be teddy was just using Leonard to coverup his drug-deals and making money and keep manipulating Leonard.
If what teddy is telling Leonard is false then:
- In that case, the picture of Leonard being happy after taking revenge and showing his chest tatto doesn’t fit.
- The whole sami jankis story may be just a outcome of a manipulated mind of Leonard as no such part is shown in movie confirming sami jankis story and its just narrations that come out of Leonard’s mind.
- In One or Two frames of movie Leonard remembers preparing insulin shot (While talking to Natalie), So his wife may truly be diabetic as teddy says.
- Leonard may really have teared down last 12 pages of police file copy to create a puzzle for himself that he can never solve.
Every explanation here seems to be breaking some apparent rules arising from Leonard’s condition. The last scene where he closes his eyes and sees himself lying with his wife along with his chest tattoo cant be real because if the tattoo is there, the wife is killed.
But its about his own mental peace that finally he has set a target (again) to avenge her wife’s death. Because if he remembers his wife truly, the tattoo of her being dead cant be there too. So it is merely his fantasy.
So is there any answer to this puzzling classic thriller? Well, when Christopher Nolan himself was asked about the same he goes by ambiguity and subjectivity and insists that “Close viewing will reveal all” (Ref. Article Scot Timber, March 15, New Times Los Angeles)
So how close viewing can we do? or can you do it? whatever is the answer, but one thing is sure, Memento is one of the best all-time classic puzzle movies.