**In this series, I will be discussing films and their endings that lift the veil on the secrets the viewer missed. This includes diving into some spoilers, so read no further if you want to keep the element of surprise.**
When thinking about the greatest directors of our generation, Christopher Nolan is an easy placement. His films not only entertain but require audiences to think about what they’re watching, whether it be for social commentary or just understanding how deep Leonardo DiCaprio is in a dream. Nolan has always been one to push the boundaries of storytelling. One has to look no further than behind the scenes of Inception or The Dark Knight Trilogy. His films have led to the construction of new machines to capture a vertically rotating set and even use IMAX cameras to film a plane dropping out of the air. But before Batman began anew or we learned we could dream within a dream, Christopher Nolan introduced a new approach to story structure in order to better relate to a man with no memory. This is 2000’s Memento.
Following the brutal murder of his wife, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) retires his career of Insurance investigation and focuses solely on bringing his wife’s killer to justice. Unfortunately for Leonard, the confrontation with her killer has left him with anterograde amnesia, meaning he can no longer create new memories. Leonard learns to balance this out by taking Polaroid photos of people he meets or objects of importance and leaving notes about them as reminders. He also takes up the habit of tattooing his body with messages to himself, such as “John G raped and murdered my wife.” This name is all Leonard has to go off of, which makes it difficult to narrow down exactly who was responsible for ending his world.
Now, the plot of Memento is interesting enough, if not a little on-the-nose for noir storytelling. However, the brilliance of Nolan’s story comes from the structure in which events are told. Divided into two different timelines, Memento features the events of Leonard’s investigation (told in full color) and a segment of Leonard recalling his traumatic past with a mysterious caller (shown in monochrome). The monochrome sequences are sprinkled between investigation events, but placed in reverse-chronological order. This means that the film’s opening sequence, shown entirely in reverse, is actually the end of the plot.
Nolan cleverly avoids any concerns of spoiling the story by withholding key context and information as to how Leonard constantly finds himself behind the barrel of a gun. The structuring of Memento is breathtaking, forcing the viewer to not only pay attention to events in order to keep up, but also sympathize with a man who cannot remember where he’s previously been. Instead, we only know where Leonard is going. It’s this formula that makes the twist in Memento all the more rewarding.
Unable to rely on his memory, Leonard finds help in the form of two individuals named Teddy and Natalie. Teddy (The Matrix’s Joe Pantoliano) is a friendly sympathetic face to Leonard who offers his help in the investigation however he can. It’s Teddy who often provides the information discovered on various individuals who fit the John G profile. Strangely, Leonard has a Polaroid of Teddy that states “don’t believe his lies” in his own handwriting.
Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss, also from The Matrix), however, is suspicious of Leonard after she first finds Leonard wearing the clothes of her boyfriend, Jimmy Grantz. She learns of Leonards’ affliction and uses him to drive out a man named Dodd out of town. Teddy agrees to help him with this task, even though he believes she’s using Leonard’s handicap against him. Of course, while this all happens, Leonard continuously mentions the story of a Sammy Jankis. But who is Sammy Jankis?
A large section of the monochrome sequences depict the retelling of an individual Leonard met during his insurance investigation days named Sammy Jankis. Sammy had the same affliction as Leonard and was unable to develop new memories, which infuriated his wife, who believed her husband to be faking his own illness. Living with diabetes, she relied on Sammy to administer her insulin shots every day. One day, she continuously asked Sammy to give her the shot, to which Sammy gleefully abides. Watching in terror, Sammy’s wife slowly realizes that her husband will not wake up from this condition and falls into a fatal coma. It’s the guilt Sammy must feel but will never remember that haunts Leonard and prompts him to mention the story to almost everyone he meets.
In the film’s climax, we learn that Natalie has pulled Teddy’s driver’s license, revealing his real name to be John Edward Gammel. We then cut to the final monochrome sequence, which shows Leonard finishing his phone call and meeting Teddy, who introduces himself as an undercover cop. Developing back into color (much like a Polaroid), Teddy says he knows where to find John G- who goes by Jimmy- and brings Leonard to an abandoned warehouse where Jimmy plans to arrive. Once Jimmy arrives, Leonard strangles him and brings his long-sought justice to a close. However, while strangling Jimmy, Leonard hears him whisper the name “Sammy.” Having only told the story to individuals he has met before, Leonard begins second guessing if Jimmy really is who Teddy says he is.
Teddy then admits that he actually helped Leonard bring down the man who attacked his wife one year earlier, and has since been using Leonard to kill men who deserved similar fates. With a name as flexible as John G, anyone can be made to fit the description. Additionally, Teddy explains that Leonard created the name Sammy Jankis to help himself cope with the fact that he put his wife into a coma. Thus, Leonard is Sammy Jankis.
Realizing that he has no other purpose to live, Leonard decides to burn all evidence of killing Jimmy and writes a note to himself on a Polaroid of Teddy: “Don’t believe his lies.” Leonard vows justice against anyone who has wronged him and intentionally provides his future self enough evidence to pin Teddy as the new John G and murder him. Armed with Teddy’s license plate numbers, Leonard pulls up to a tattoo parlor and prepares for his next journey. That journey just so happens to be the start of the film.
On the eve of its’ 20th anniversary, Memento stands as a towering achievement in storytelling and served as the platform that gave Christopher Nolan his big break. Since then, Nolan has continued to push the limits of cinema and create one groundbreaking concept after another. As we prepare for the upcoming release of his next film Tenet in July, there’s no better time to revisit Leonard Shelby and his search to avoid becoming the monster of his own story.
Now, where was I?