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Memento (2001)

July 23rd, 2008 · 2 Comments

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“So where are you? You’re in some motel room. You just, you just wake up and you’re in a motel room,” narrates Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) as he tries to figure out what he’s doing in the motel. Lenny meets Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and is able to remember that this is a friend of his by referencing one of several Polaroids he carries, with notes scribbled on the back. The notes on Teddy’s photo read, “Don’t believe his lies. He is the one. Kill him.” Lenny asks Teddy to beg his wife’s forgiveness before he shoots him.

As the story moves backwards one scene at a time, Lenny reveals that he knows who he is, but after an accident, is unable to form new memories. In addition to the Polaroids and notes he uses to cue his recall, Lenny has covered his body in tattoos, such as, “Find him and kill him.” Using these clues and a DMV record that’s been given to him by someone named Natalie, Lenny concludes that Teddy is the man he’s been searching for, the man who raped and murdered his wife.

Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) – whose Polaroid reads, “She has also lost someone. She will help you out of pity” – meets Lenny at a diner to give him information he apparently asked her for. Natalie seems to have feelings for Lenny and wants to help him get his revenge, but as far as Lenny’s concerned, he just met her. Teddy tries to warn his friend against killing a man based on his little notes and pictures because they may be unreliable. Lenny disagrees. “Facts, not memories. That’s how you investigate.”


Lenny used to be an insurance investigator. He recalls the case of Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), a retired accountant who after an accident, appears to lose the ability to form new memories. When junkies kill Lenny’s wife (Jorja Fox), he succumbs to the same condition. Lenny is convinced that the police got it wrong and that the true killer is the mysterious “John G.” Natalie wants to help him find this man, but Lenny fears someone may be trying to take advantage of his condition to make him kill the wrong person.

Production history

Jonathan Nolan was attending Georgetown University in 1996 when a General Psych course introduced him to a condition known as “anterograde memory loss.” His professor explained that this prevented patients from forming new memories. An aspiring writer, “Jonah” dropped out of school and spent a year traveling and reading Melville. Returning to Chicago a year later, he wanted to write a story about memory. ”I was drawn to it as a metaphor. A demonstration of how fleeting identity really is.”

Jonah was helping his older brother Christopher Nolan move from Chicago to Los Angeles. During the road trip, Jonah told him about his idea. Christopher Nolan had just finished Following, a no-budget, 69-minute mystery he’d made in England that marked his feature film debut as a writer/director. He became excited about his brother’s story idea and asked if he could write a screenplay.


In the short story Memento Mori – ultimately published in Esquire Magazine in March 2001 – a man named Earl whose short term memory is wiped clean every fifteen minutes escapes from an institution, following clues to the man he believes murdered his wife. In the screenplay Memento, the protagonist is named Leonard Shelby. He suffers from the same condition, using scraps of paper, Polaroids and tattoos to find his wife’s killer. The major departure Christopher Nolan took from his brother’s short story was to tell it in reverse.

Aaron Ryder read an early draft of the script while working with Christopher Nolan’s wife, producer Emma Thomas. Ryder optioned the script through a film financing company he worked for called Newmarket and helped Nolan develop it. After a rewrite, Newmarket brought in producers Suzanne and Jennifer Todd to produce Memento and committed to a budget of $5 million. The script then went out to actors.

Guy Pearce claims he literally begged to play Lenny. “My agent sent me the script and wrote on the bottom, ‘You’re going to love it.’ And I called him after I read it and said, ‘Well, that was an understatement, wasn’t it?’” Carrie-Anne Moss joined the cast next, and recommended Joe Pantoliano for the third lead. Memento went before the cameras in August 1999 for 26 days of shooting around Los Angeles. But when Newmarket screened the finished film to studios and distributors, not one of them made a respectable offer. According to Ryder, “People thought it was too difficult, too obscure and had no commercial potential.”


Newmarket wanted to transition from a finance company to one that produced and marketed its own films, and chose Memento to be their first release, submitting it to the Venice, Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals. Riding a wave of favorable reviews – “If nothing else, Memento is a savvy comment on the queasy uncertainties of the postmodern condition, in which history goes no further back than yesterday’s news, and knowledge is supplanted by ‘information’ from a tumult of spin-controlled, unreliable narrators,” wrote Ella Taylor in L.A. Weekly – and enthusiastic word of mouth, the film took in $25 million at the box office in the U.S.

Memento occupies select real estate in the seedy neighborhood of the film noir mystery because the story unravels with the precision of a narrative engineered by Mensa. That said, you don’t have to be a genius or even watch the film more than once to be enthralled by it.
The Nolans employ all sorts of ruses, dodges and slights of hand here, but the biggest surprise may be how well the film holds up under scrutiny. It’s just as exciting now as it was when it was released, and remains one of the most compelling movie mysteries of all time.

While there’s a vague familiarity to this tale of an insurance man and a dangerous dame, the Nolans are less interested in repeating genre conventions than they are in shattering them. Assembling a movie in reverse might have been disastrous, but the con works beautifully. Part of the fun is how Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano play variations on their characters, changing who they are depending where we are in Lenny’s recollection. Editor Dody Dorn cut this together seamlessly, while Christopher Nolan deserves props for stretching a small budget to look twice what it was.


Curt Holman at Creating Loafing writes, “Though it’s not the easiest of films to follow, Nolan crafts his narrative with such care that the audience soon falls into its rhythm. At the end Nolan seems to bend his own well-established rules, and the finale may make your head spin — counterclockwise, of course. But it’s in the service of a deeper meaning, allowing Memento to conclude on an unnerving note about obsession, vengeance and grief that gives it thematic staying power beyond its gimmick.”

Memento is a clever thriller, which is rare in these times. It consistently entertains with a sense of humor and an artful spirit. So what if the final conceit doesn’t fit within the logic of the initial conceit? Unfortunately, those praising the film for more than twists and thrills need to try harder to recall their college philosophy readings … Affixing great intellectual import to this film turns a great body of philosophical work into a giant souvenir sombrero,” writes Jon Kern at Jiminy Critic.

Christopher Null at writes, “It’s deeper than you can make a gimmick like this sound – and to be honest, it is just a gimmick – but it’s a gimmick that works. The movie, written and directed by Christopher Nolan (and based on his brother’s short story) is vibrant and harrowing, unpredictable despite an ending long since given away. Unfathomably, the film gets progressively better as it goes along, and I found myself inching closer and closer to the edge of my seat throughout the movie.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on short story · Cult favorite · Dreams and visions · Femme fatale · Interrogation · Murder mystery · Paranoia · Prostitute · Psychoanalysis

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 AR // Jul 29, 2008 at 9:26 am

    Curious. Just saw The Dark Knight yesterday. Nolan is a terribly smart director, really knows how to assemble a film.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Jul 29, 2008 at 6:02 pm

    AR: Nolan’s taste in material has been uncanny so far. His project after Insomnia was going to be a Howard Hughes biography, but Martin Scorsese beat him to it. He seems to love psychologically dense protagonists and knows how to shoot these movies in a very gritty, classical way.

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