About the Film
Cast: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano
Director: Christopher Nolan Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
About the Word
Definition: du·plic·i·tous [du̇-ˈpli-sə-təs] adj.- deceptive in words or action: warned her not to trust the duplicitous art dealer
One does not go into Memento not anticipating a twist. Even if you’ve only seen his Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, you know that Christopher Nolan is no stranger to pulling the wool over his viewers’ eyes. His first big hit, Memento, is the epitome of this filmmaking style, and you come out of it almost violated by how duplicitous it is.
It starts out in medias res, placing you in one of the most intense scenes of the film, but played in reverse. By the time you have a general impression of what happened, the film then spends the next two hours trying to defy your expectations of that intense intro. The plot essentially concerns Guy Pearce’s character Leonard trying to piece together the identity of his wife’s killer, while dealing with his acute short-term memory loss issues. Even the characters are duplicitous and backhanded to Leonard; they spin his case in circles, lead him down incorrect paths, and make him feel like he’s wasting his time. In the brief moments where Leonard does make a breakthrough, it’s unclear if it was of his own volition, or due to the machinations of those around him.
A perfect example of this is Carrie-Anne Moss’s character, Natalie. Natalie latches onto Leonard’s case early on, but she clearly doesn’t have his best interest in mind. Once she realizes that she can come into a room, tell him one thing, leave for five minutes, and return to tell him the opposite thing, she becomes another part of the film’s interweaving web of lies. There’s a scene very late in the movie where she does exactly that, and it manages to both disturb Leonard and the viewer.
Let’s not forget about you, the viewer in Memento. The viewer’s expectations are toyed with exactly as Leonard’s are. Certain scenes don’t make sense until much later in the film, such as Leonard’s obsessive writing of various phrases on his body in ink, or a weird subplot where Stephen Tobolowsky has a similar illness to Leonard. All is revealed in time, but Memento’s ending doesn’t simply deliver a final revelation that makes every scene before it make sense. Rather, since it takes place in forward and reverse order, each scene reveals something about the previous one. Since the entire point that this article hinges requires an intimate understanding of the ending, I’m going to be talking Memento spoilers in the next paragraph, so you’ve been warned. However, if you want the ending to hit you as hard as it did me, watch the film blind. I promise, you’ll be glad you did.
OK, everyone back? Christopher Nolan spent two hours making us think the film was about Leonard’s wife’s killer, when it was really about how obsessed we are with “solving” films like this. When watching Memento, I guessed a new killer every scene or two. That’s just the way it’s composed; each wrinkle in the story reframes the previous events to implicate that someone else was the killer. But who was the real killer? Leonard? Sammy Jankis? Nope, it’s the short-term memory loss. When it’s revealed that Sammy Jankis is just Leonard’s way to reconcile his accidental killing of his wife, you don’t feel like you’ve beaten Memento. It’s beaten you. The very idea that one of the people in this investigation is the killer is fundamentally wrong. Like Leonard, we’re all searching for answers where there are none. And like Leonard, our catharsis comes from finally freeing ourselves of this endless loop and watching the credits. For Leonard, that ending comes from killing Teddy in the opening scene of the film, breaking the chain of violence that Teddy has been leading him down.
The theme of manipulation is prevalent in every scene of Memento, but it never hit me with how brilliant it was until I realized that we are just as much pawns as Leonard is in the film. Sure, it’s a sneaky tactic to subvert expectations, and it’s duplicitous, and Christopher Nolan is a sick bastard, but isn’t that a credit to the film? The fact that it makes its viewers feel like no other film does is admirable, and even if you’ve only seenThe Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, you know now what to expect from Christopher Nolan films that start where they end.