How reliable is memory? And how do you discern “fact” from “memory” if memory can be altered? These questions are at the heart of Memento, which is a film unique in that we see the story told backwards. We begin at the end of the story and slowly figure out where it all begins through the notes and tattoos Leonard (Guy Pearce) leaves for himself. There was an incident that resulted in him losing his short term memory – his last memory is seeing his wife assaulted and dying on the bathroom floor next to him. And so we learn his whole story in bits.
I did see it a few years ago, perhaps when I was in middle school but don’t remember appreciating it in the same way I heard from others. Again, simply too young to understand it all. Now I’ve become a big fan of Christopher Nolan, who directed Memento as well, so I enjoyed re-watching one of his earlier films and really appreciating what he did with it.
It’s really an interesting film on many levels. At the surface, the storytelling and filmmaking techniques are innovative and really pose an interesting narrative about a man struggling to understand the world around him with his “condition.” He is looking for his wife’s killer while trying to discern who he can and cannot trust through a combination of notes and looking closely at people when he talks to them. That alone creates an intriguing film.
Along the way, we meet characters related to Leonard’s story, including Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), and we have to figure out who they really are slowly throughout the movie. The good guys and bad guys are inconsistent throughout the story so you never really know who to trust with mostly Leonard’s own notes to go by.
But what it also does thematically is look at the idea of truth and memory. It is common now to understand that memories can be altered. The way a scene is remembered by one person does not necessarily match what is remembered by another. Details can get muddled and the real story is often told in the details. Throughout the film, Leonard maintains that he just needs the main facts and tattoos them all over his body so that he can remember everything he has learned so far. What we discover as viewers throughout the movie, however, is that he is selective with which “facts” he makes himself remember and his method of leaving notes is not always reliable.
As a psychological thriller it is able to hold your attention, but it also gains a deeper meaning by looking at the way people see and understand the world. It is different for everyone and everyone is capable of twisting the facts in their own brain, lying to themselves to feel better. And if you lie to yourself long enough, you start to believe it. Are we really all that different from Leonard in the end?