Analysis: Memento in Relation to Reception Theory
by Mike Dawson
Left Field Cinema
Based on a short story, Memento Mori, by Jonah Nolan, Memento is structurally a very different kind film, a film which attempts a type of narrative very few directors had employed before. Guy Pierce plays an insurance investigator Leonard Shelby who is wounded during an attack on him and his wife and now suffers a rare and memory disorder called anterograde memory loss. This means that he has no short-term memory. He remembers everything from before the attack, but after that he won’t remember anything more than about five minutes at a time. The last thing he recalls is his wife dying and as a result has been on a quest for revenge ever since. He isn’t a hero, more of a delusional anti hero. Leonard’s vendetta is the only driving force left in his life now. There are problems with Leonard’s revenge lead search however. He can never be sure whom to trust, he relies on notes that he makes to himself on Polaroid pictures of people, and a series of tattoos across his body for very serious information which he can’t afford to forget. He believes that he can achieve his goal with out memory because it’s unreliable. “Memory can change the shape of a room or the colour of a car. It’s interpretation not a record.” Another problem with Leonard’s revenge is that he’ll never remember it. He’ll never know the satisfaction beyond the few minutes he retains the memory. He maybe able to take a picture to document it but he won’t remember it. This problem Leonard counters by arguing that just because he can’t remember doesn’t mean that his actions don’t have meaning or that what he does in his life isn’t important. However when Leonard avenges his wife, the last thing he’ll remember will still be her death. Towards the end of the film it is revealed that Leonard has already avenged his wife over a year earlier, and didn’t remember doing it. Since then has been manipulated into being an unwitting patsy by everyone around him including most interestingly - himself. In the startling final scene it is revealed that he has been removing and manipulating evidence to give himself a bigger puzzle to solve, and to steer himself towards killing Teddy who has also been manipulating him. It is through this plot twist that the one of the central messages of Memento is revealed. Revenge is a pointless exercise; vengeance begets vengeance. Leonard can’t remember his revenge and so he keeps on going. He wrongfully kills Jimmy Grantz because he was manipulated by Teddy, as a result Natalie uses him as well sleeping with him and playing games with his mind; games he won’t remember. Sight and Sound had this to say about the film in their November 2000 issue “Drawing from the rich metafictional possibilities inherent in the detective genre, Memento delivers, in Leonard Shelby, a character who, while he considers himself an investigator, is actually - and all at once - a proficient killer and the perfect patsy: fuelled by his lust for revenge, he’ll take out anybody with the initials that fit; dependent on others to provide clues to the identity of his wife’s killer, he’s also the victim of countless set-ups, the seemingly unwitting cog in the duplicitous maneuverings of those around him."
People manipulate themselves. People can make themselves remember what they want to remember, or make themselves believe what they want to believe. An individual’s recollection is not restricted to what was physically seen, heard, felt, tasted or smelt; memory can be moulded by those who own it. Like prolific liars who often begin to believe their own lies in order to sustain an illusion to those around them. Throughout the film there is a prolonged flash back sequence where Leonard explains the story of Sammy Jankis a man with a similar condition as himself who he investigated before he lost his memory. Sammy didn’t get any insurance money because Leonard felt that his condition was psychological not physical. Sammy’s wife was a diabetic and Sammy could give her an insulin injection with no problem. Sammy’s wife eventually tested him, getting him to give her the same insulin jab over and over again until she fell into a coma. The second revelation in the final scene is that Sammy’s story is actually Leonard’s, that he conditioned himself to remember Sammy’s fictional case, because he didn’t want to remember the truth. That it was his wife had diabetes and she survived the assault and she tested Leonard and misled him to give her and overdose of insulin.
“Memento, delves into the dark black side of the soul brining us face to face with the part of man which no one talks about; our delusions. The lies we tell ourselves, although never out loud, which allow us to go on with the daily routine. Leaving us to wonder, is it our own manipulation which silently drives our motives pulling us towards the eventual outcome like a strong undertow in waist deep water.” (Karten, 2000)
“Ultimately, Memento stands on its own as a thriller, but it also works as a profound tragedy, stunning in its portrayal of a man teetering on the edge, though he doesn’t even know it. It asks some serious questions about how we know what to believe, since our senses and our memory all lie to us. And in the end, Memento gives us our answer: We simply believe what we choose to.” (Null, 2001)
Leonard conditions himself to remember the story. He simply believes what he wants to believe. Remembers what he wants to remember. It is a comment on how people manipulate themselves, and choose to remember what they want to remember.
To Read the Rest of the Analysis
To Listen to the Analysis