One of my cinema pet peeves is when people refer to the structure of Christopher Nolan‘s Memento as “a gimmick.” A gimmick is a hook that serves no point. It gets your attention, but by its very nature has no payoff. If Nolan dressed Guy Pearce in a chicken costume for the entirety of the movie and never explained it, that would be a gimmick. The reverse-chronology of Memento is essential to its power because it’s the only way to put the audience in the mindset of its brain-damaged detective, Leonard Shelby (Pearce, not wearing a chicken costume). “It’s all backwards,” Burt (Mark Boone Junior) says in one of the film’s more meta moments, but the reverse chronology does pull you into Leonard’s world, one where we see effect without cause, and can only see the power of causation as we move further back in time. This unique structure gives Memento a hook and its power as Nolan is able to brilliantly intersect time, identity, and memory into his finest feature.
The story follows Shelby, who has a short-term memory loss following a break-in at his house that gave him his “condition” and also his wife was raped and murdered. Leonard has been chasing the guy who did it, but his search is complicated by the fact that he can’t make new memories since the accident. So Leonard convinces himself that through conditioning, he can be disciplined enough to find vengeance. But as the story unfolds, the reveal isn’t the true culprit but to show that Leonard is chasing his own ghost. He has purposefully been creating a mystery he can never solve because he’s already solved it, but forgotten that he already achieved his vengeance. Instead, everyone he meets uses him including corrupt cop Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), vindictive bartender Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), and even Burt, the hotel desk clerk. Leonard clings to this shred of control he believes he has, but that control is an illusion. He thinks that his Polaroids and tattoos are hard evidence, but they’re just as fallible as memory. In the end, he learns (before he forgets again) that his wife survived the attack and that she committed suicide by having Leonard give her too much insulin.
The figure of Leonard Shelby—a man who believes he’s in control only to learn that his control was an illusion—recurs in Nolan’s filmography, but it works particularly well in Memento because of how Nolan is able to upend expectations of the noir genre. Leonard is our detective, and while he suffers from a crippling ailment, he should still be able to solve the case, but the film slowly reveals that what Leonard’s working towards isn’t justice or even vengeance, but clinging to the scraps of an identity. He’s conditioned himself not to solve the case, but rather to create a simulacrum of his old life as an insurance investigator (another reason he can’t stop talking about Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky)). Leonard has constructed an elaborate lie that allows him to live out the same fantasy and hold onto the identity that he can solve a mystery. Everyone lies to Leonard, most of all Leonard.
What gives the story its potency is that Memento recognizes we all lie to ourselves. Nolan simply found a vehicle to make the lie one of the stars of the film. Leonard’s not lying to himself about his success or his ego. He’s lying to himself about his very identity, and his brain damage allows him to perpetuate this mythology endlessly. It’s only when we recall the very first scene that we remember that Leonard has a new opportunity to break the cycle. Without Teddy around to use Leonard as a weapon and a new photo marking Teddy’s demise, maybe Leonard will tell himself the truth. Maybe that can break the cycle, but until we reach that resolution (that comes at the very beginning), we have to get to the thematic truth of the film, which doesn’t come until we understand why Leonard killed Teddy in the first place.
Like all of us, Leonard is looking to feel like his actions have meaning. “The world doesn’t just disappear when you close your eyes,” Leonard says, but with causality broken in Leonard’s mind, he has become somewhat divorced from the world. Memento is a powerful story about the hold that identity has on us and how it even can transcend the loss of short-term memory. Leonard is convinced that he knows who he is, but it’s not until the climax that Teddy tells him, “That’s who you were.” Leonard doesn’t want to face the fact that without his vengeance and without a mystery to solve, he’s just a guy with brain damage and probably has no place in the world. His own wife chose suicide, and rather than remember what happened to her, he made up a comforting narrative about Sammy Jankis.
Constructing all this together within a neo-noir framework is brilliant, and watching Memento is like looking at a house of cards you’re sure is going to topple over any moment. But Nolan and editor Dody Dorn know exactly where to cut in the action, and how to immaculately structure the narrative so that the audience is never lost. Like Following, Inception, Dunkirk, or any other Nolan film that plays with time, Nolan isn’t trying to lose his audience. This isn’t Primer where you throw up your hands and just have to go along for the ride. Nolan goes to the point of making sure that his prologue is in black-and-white so that you’re aware you’re looking at Leonard in a narrative that’s separate from the reverse-narrative that continues until both narratives meet up at the climax of the movie.
Nolan movies are obsessed with notions of control, and the control over time contrasts nicely with Leonard’s illusion of control over his own story. Where Nolan and his protagonist sync up is how much control they exert over the power of narrative. Nolan is fascinated by the concept of narratives and how the power of creation is inextricably linked to destruction. Leonard has created an entirely new identity built on a lie, and because his creation is based on a lie, it ultimately leads to a destructive conclusion, which is that he becomes nothing more than Teddy’s hitman. Like The Young Man from Following or Robert Angier from The Prestige or Mal from Inception, Leonard has provided himself a comforting lie, and that lie has proven to be his downfall until he finally decides to pursue something that’s true—Teddy is using him and so Teddy must be stopped.
The cautionary tale in Memento is that Leonard Shelby, despite his unique condition, is universal in how he lies to himself. Nolan isn’t opposed to the concept of a lie—he’s a storyteller after all. But he’s fascinated by how lies are implemented. For Nolan, lies are tools, and sometimes they can be used for benevolent purposes like a magic show in The Prestige or the mind heist in Inception. In Memento, Leonard finds a new lie—that Teddy is responsible for the rape and murder of Leonard’s wife—but like all good art, it’s a lie that tells the truth. Teddy may not be responsible for Leonard’s condition, but his desire to use Leonard as a weapon makes him at least partially responsible for Leonard’s predicament. “You don’t want the truth,” Teddy tells Leonard. “You make up your own truth.” And so the truth Leonard decides to follow is that Teddy must be eliminated, and the reason why doesn’t matter because Leonard’s never going to remember the reasons anyway. Leonard lies to himself on a tapestry of good intentions; he tells himself he’s not a killer. But it’s his actions that have meaning even if he can’t remember them.
Through its ingenious plotting and characterization, Christopher Nolan made a movie where the lie itself became the protagonist. The central irony of Leonard Shelby is that his motives are based on the search for truth, but he consumes nothing but lies. He even conditions himself to believe more lies because the truth can be too painful. “You lie to yourself to be happy…We all do it!” Teddy exclaims. But to quote a later Nolan film, “Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people need something more. Sometimes they need their faith rewarded.” Leonard Shelby eventually learns that he needs to believe his actions still have meaning. That conditioning himself into a vengeful detective isn’t the truth he needs. Whether his lie leads him to a better truth is a question for before the opening credits roll.