Published March 1, 2001
Let it not be said that Memento, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, has nothing to say. On the contrary, it has a very serious point to make about the way that people manufacture their own reality. In particular, as its subject is revenge and memory-loss, it encourages us to wonder if all revenge is like this. Maybe it is never the same person who commits the original crime and who then is punished for it, nor the same person who suffers an injury and then avenges it. Maybe that’s why we—at least the enlightened among us—don’t like the idea of revenge. The trouble is that, like the more portentous and self-consciously “profound” pop singers, it tries to push its insights too far and never really gets over its adolescent awe at the Heraclitean paradox that reality is fluid.
By the end of the movie this mildly but rather speciously interesting reflection has turned into the stupefyingly boring question: Does “reality” exists at all? Heavy, huh? The real appeal of the film, however, is in its style. In order to simulate the outlook on the world of a man, Lenny (Guy Pearce), whose short-term memory has been destroyed, the story is told backwards. Over the opening credits we see a hand, with a tattoo on it, holding a Polaroid snapshot of what looks like a murder scene. The hand shakes the photo as if to dry it, but instead of emerging from white formlessness the image fades into it. There follows a reversal of the whole process which culminated in the murder, from the reinsertion of the photo into the camera to the restoration to life of the victim.
We are never told how it is that Lenny knows that his wife was raped and murdered by a man known as “John G” (or possibly Jim G.) and that his own injury on the same occasion is what has deprived him of his memory, but he has the information tattooed on his body. He uses the tattoos, the Polaroids, notes to himself and “habit and routine” to carry on his pursuit of the alleged rapist/murderer even though he can’t remember from one day to the next what progress he has made. He also has good reasons for supposing that various people who seem to be helping him are actually using his lust for vengeance, and his infirmity, for their own purposes. Perhaps, as his rather louche companion and assistant Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) suggests at one point, he has already found and killed the man and can’t remember it. Perhaps the crime never even happened.
Lenny remains somewhat strangely unperturbed by all such reflections. “You can’t trust a man’s life to your little notes and pictures,” Teddy insists to him. “They’re not reliable.”
“Memory is unreliable,” Lenny replies cooly, and he continues doggedly to hunt a killer he doesn’t even know exists. “My wife still deserves revenge,” he insists. “The world doesn’t disappear when you close your eyes.” It is an admirable article of faith to cling to for such a man—a man for whom the world does disappear when he closes his eyes. Sometimes Mr. Nolan exploits the comedy of this situation. At one point Lenny finds himself running after, he thinks, a bad guy—until the bad guy shoots at him and he realizes that he is actually running away from him. It is because we know there is such a momentous difference between running towards and running away that the make-believe world in which a man cannot tell it is both funny and terrifying.
Likewise, we witness the cliché in which a man wakes up next to a partially-dressed woman and can’t remember who she is. For Lenny, there is almost a comfort in such a sexual faux pas, as it re-unites him at least with that portion of humanity which has at one time or another been drunk enough to do the same thing. In the same way, there must be a certain satisfaction in being able to enjoy the freedom of simply answering “no” when the woman, Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) asks him if he will remember her. Natalie is a bar-maid, and when Lenny describes his condition to her in the bar, she says: “There are a lot of guys in here like that.”
The film’s funniest moment, however, comes when Lenny wakes up in a sleazy motel room to the sound of a muffled thumping in the closet. He flings open the closet door and finds a man gagged and bound there. Tearing the duct tape off his mouth, he asks: “Who did this to you?”
“You did,” the man replies. And Lenny gags him again. The movie is clever enough to have done a better job as a comedy than Clean Slate, a mostly unfunny Dana Carvey vehicle of 1994 with a similar theme. But its ambitions of seriousness spoil it, I think. Near the end, Lenny returns—too self-consciously, too portentously—to the metaphorical implications of his condition: “I have to believe in a world outside my own mind,” he says. “I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world is still there….still there.” We all have to believe that. But once you’ve said so there is really not very much else to say on the subject.