If you have not seen the movie, I suggest you do so and more than once. Please do not read this before watching, as one cannot begin to fully discuss this movie without delving into the quarry that is its plot.
For those of you who have experienced Memento (because you do not simply watch a movie such as this one), you must realize that Nolan's intent in directing this film was not to only use a sequencing gimmick to create a movie that's 'good because it's weird.' I must first explain what I mean by experiencing Memento.
Nolan has achieved something so rare in art with this film that it must be at least acknowledged. In crafting his protagonist, Leonard Shelby, he has provided viewers (experiencers, I should say) a profoundly introspective view of the life of another human being. The making of this film, from its chronology to its editing, allows viewers a chance to be the protagonist. The questions Leonard asks (questions he asks of others as well as of himself) are direct reflections of questions we ask ourselves while watching, and the answers he receives fulfill no premeditated expectations.
Such is the natrue of Memento. Some of the film is shot in reverse chronology while the rest is shot in forward-moving chronology (I refrain from saying standard chronology). The story centers (or so we think) on Leonard's revenge-filled quest to kill the man who murdered his wife.
That's really all I have to say about the plot, actually. If you have seen it, you will know its basic premise. Memento's conflict-resolution plot is not where it shines, even though it could have stood on its own as an above average film.
Nolan's direction of this film and writing of its screenplay not only MAKES you feel Leonard's confusion, but it also presents viewers with moral and philosophical dilemmas that are not meant to be resolved at the film's conclusion...
"Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They're just an interpretation, they're not a record, and they're irrelevant if you have the facts. "
Nolan puts us on this train of thought early in the movie. We are supposed to question our memory of the events throughout the course of the film and, by extension, the events during the course of our lives. But he twists Leonard's flawed logic on itself with precise ingenuity. We are forced to ask ourselves: what exactly are distortions of memory?
In Leonard's case, these distortions are of facts. He never quite has his facts straight, as he is misled time and again by the notes he scribbles on Polaroids and inscribes on his body and the advice of those around him. Leonard does not have the facts and (following suit) neither do the viewers. The moral issue raised here is difficult to consider with our typical understanding of a static relationship between memory and morality.
Nolan presents us with a dynamic alternative: is our morality based on our ability to remember? We are led to believe Leonard is on a moral quest for revenge and that he is "not a killer." Because we are so brilliantly trapped in Leonard's mind, we have no way of determining his previous nature other than who he thinks he was. Leonard is obviously not the same person as he was before "the incident," and Teddy observes this on numerous occasions. Is Leonard really a killer? Could we all be an unrecognizable entity in the absence (or even in the intentional alteration) of memory?
Although this abstraction is presented through a fictional character, its relevance penetrates Nolan's underlying focus on human nature in Memento. If we are conscionably able to alter the facts of our memory, then do the boundaries of morality even exist? The definitions we attribute to ourselves are rooted in memory, in the notion that we will be able to look at ourselves in the mirror at the end of the day and be happy with what we see. We govern ourselves so that we will not have those actions that we have to 'live with for the rest of our lives'...and if there is not the limitation of our own memory, what will we allow ourselves to get away with?
"I'm not a killer. I'm just someone who wanted to make things right. Can't I just let myself forget what you've told me? Can't I just let myself forget what you've made me do. You think I just want another puzzle to solve? Another John G. to look for? You're John G. So you can be my John G... Will I lie to myself to be happy? In your case Teddy... yes I will."
"Just because there are things I don't remember doesn't make my actions meaningless."
This statement by Leonard is perhaps his most desperate attempt at grasping his identity. We make these attempts daily. By introducing a character who is constantly fighting this battle within himself, Nolan gives us an introspective look into our own desires for meaning.
We constantly search for meaning: in our lives, in humanity, in the Earth and in the universe. We are naturally not satisfied with the time we are so fortunate to have. To Leonard, a man who has certainly lost a sense of belonging in this life, meaning is inscribed on his body and scribbled on notepads and Polaroids. This search for meaning leads Leonard on an inherently endless quest, one that will only result in perpetual violence for himself and the people he associates with.
Finding meaning in life has been abused for as long as humans have roamed the Earth. Countless wars have been waged on the grounds of finding absolute meaning in religion, culture, race and many other traditional sources of conflict. All of these instigators come from the irrational quest for some higher meaning in our lives. Nolan has done an exceptional job of thrusting viewers into the world of a figure totally devoid of meaning, an individual who has been forced to almost completely abandon his human dignity because he can barely even remember what human dignity is. When we extrapolate this example to the rest of the world, we can see the potential for disaster associated with searches for meaning combined with large-scale group mentality.
"You can just feel the details. The bits and pieces you never bothered to put into words. And you can feel these extreme moments... even if you don't want to. You put these together, and you get the feel of a person. Enough to know how much you miss them... and how much you hate the person who took them away."
As focused as Memento is on memory loss, it also uses severely fragmented flashbacks to represent the distinct and powerful effects of retained memory on our emotions and actions.
Leonard often wakes up lost, both physically and emotionally. He comments that he feels afraid and guilty but does not know why; he cannot remember the source of these emotions. However, he constantly feels the devastation of his lost wife, whose death constantly seems like it was only moments ago in his altered sense of reality. As a result, Leonard ceaselessly feels the impact of this event as if a knife were continuously lacerating his skin. Nolan weaves this dynamic of Leonard's character into the film seamlessly, providing a lingering motivation for Leonard to continue his search for revenge many times over.
And that is the powerful essence of memory. We all have particular memories that strike us more profoundly than others. For Leonard, the last memory he has is, by its nature, one that will remain vivid in his consciousness and sub consciousness for the rest of his life.
By way of this emotional process that Leonard must constantly endure, Nolan has created a duality in Leonard's character. On the one hand, his lack of memory allows him to act without memory-based reservation. On the other, the lingering memory of his wife's death (perhaps an incorrect memory...or incorrect interpretation of facts?) motivates him to betray his own conscience knowing that he will not remember what he does anyway.
Can we convince ourselves of these two things? Nolan's film serves as a warning against both.
Many questions remain unanswered concerning the plot of Christopher Nolan's Memento. I have addressed many of them indirectly through my thematic interpretations of the film, so I will refrain from asking them again. Besides, a substantial part of experiencing this movie is forming your own questions based on your own interpretations...I imagine that's exactly how Nolan wanted it to be.