Memento - My Impressions


SPOILER WARNING: This page contains detailed plot description of the film Memento. Reading this page may potentially spoil your enjoyment of this film if you have not yet seen it.

The Idea

The 2000 film Memento, directed by Christopher Nolan, sits comfortably within IMDB's Top 250 films list. It is regarded as something of a classic work of film.

Despite this, prior to 1 October 2007, I had never seen the film. I had no idea what the film was about. I did not know anything about the events of the story, or even the genre. I did however, know one very important fact about the structure of the film. The events depicted are presented as a series of scenes in reverse chronological order.

Over a discussion with some friends, several of whom are keen movie fans and very familiar with Memento, I conceived the idea that I would watch Memento for the first time, unaware of the plot, and record my impressions and thoughts as the film unfolded. Here's the catch: I would get someone to re-order the scenes so that they are presented to me in chronological order, rather than the reverse order as intended.

The Execution

Some of my friends were sceptical, and thought that this would ruin my enjoyment of the film at first viewing. But others were enthusiastic to carry out the experiment. One volunteered his video editing skills to recut the film, placing all the scenes in chronological order for me.

A few weeks later, I was handed a DVD with the recut version of the film on it. Still knowing nothing about the plot of the film - not even knowing what actors were in it - I sat down to watch it. I kept a notepad and pen handy, and recorded my impressions as the story unfolded.

I took three and a half A4 pages of notes, pausing the film at times to write down my thoughts at important moments and as new revelations occurred to me. Those notes form the basis of the next section. The notes, as I wrote them, appear in italics, with additional thoughts after the movie ended and I typed this up added in normal text.

The Notes

The Conclusion

Memento holds together well as a chronological narrative. It's a bit confusing at first, but after a while it settles into a reasonably comprehensible plotline, albeit one with a few large, tantalising mysteries. If it wasn't for the overly explanatory dialogue about his memory condition right near the end, I'd say it would be a perfectly fine movie with no glaring flaws in its technical construction.

In fact, now having seen it in chronological order, I'm curious as to how well it holds together in the canonical reverse chronological order. My feeling is that it may actually suffer for it, for a few reasons:

  1. There are some things that characters do that make sense in the chronological narrative, because you've seen the set-up that goes on before. In the reversed chronology, you'd see the effect before the cause, which in several cases would be extremely confusing. I realise that temporary confusion is probably part of the goal of the film as released, but my feeling is that it could detract from the narrative rather than enhance it.
  2. The final scenes, being the short black and white ones where he wakes up in the motel room, would seem to lead nowhere at all. There isn't a big moment at that end of the film.
The big issue is that there was no revelation at the end to explain the central mystery of the plot. The competing theories as I see them are:
  1. Lenny remembers his wife's death correctly. There was another attacker, named John G. Lenny tracked down and killed John G. a year ago, but doesn't remember it. Gammel is a friend trying to help Lenny achieve satisfaction in his revenge, to which end he sets up the drug dealer Jimmy G. Lenny knows he won't remember killing Jimmy G. and sets himself up to perform another revenge killing, of his friend Gammell. Gammell's death is a tragedy.
  2. Lenny remembers his wife's death correctly. There was another attacker, named John G. Gammell is John G., but has been trying to get Lenny to kill someone else (Jimmy G.) so that Lenny will think he has his revenge and Gammell will be off the hook. Lenny never figures this out, but by curious circumstance sets himself up to kill Gammell anyway. Gammell's death is the final justice.
  3. Lenny remembers his wife's death incorrectly. There never was a second attacker, but he's convinced himself there was. Gammel is a friend trying to help Lenny achieve satisfaction in his revenge, to which end he sets up the drug dealer Jimmy G. Lenny knows he won't remember killing Jimmy G. and sets himself up to perform another revenge killing, of his friend Gammell. Gammell's death is a tragedy.
  4. Lenny remembers his wife's death incorrectly. Gammell was right when he said that Lenny killed her himself with an overdose of insulin - an event which Lenny has mentally transferred to another person. But knowing that Lenny will never believe that, Gammel tries to help Lenny achieve satisfaction in his revenge, to which end he sets up the drug dealer Jimmy G. Lenny knows he won't remember killing Jimmy G. and sets himself up to perform another revenge killing, of his friend Gammell. Gammell's death is a tragedy.
  5. Lenny's wife is not actually dead. He has a false memory, presumably caused by whatever has caused his memory loss condition. Natalie is his wife, but she can't make him remember her. Gammel is a friend trying to help Lenny achieve satisfaction in his (false) revenge, to which end he sets up the drug dealer Jimmy G. Lenny knows he won't remember killing Jimmy G. and sets himself up to perform another revenge killing, of his friend Gammell. Gammell's death is a tragedy.
Right now, as I type this up, I favour theory 5, that Natalie is Lenny's wife. It seems to have the fewest holes in it and to be the most satisfying, given the details of Lenny's interactions with Natalie. I can't believe that Gammell killed Lenny's wife; if he did, why on Earth would he hang around, talking to Lenny all the time? He'd be much better off hightailing it across the country. So as slimy as Gammell seems to be, I think he has to be a concerned friend of Lenny's, and theory 2 is right out. Of theories 1 and 3, there's not really much to distinguish them. Theory 1 seems a bit more likely simply by Ockham's Razor. Theory 4 is intriguing, and hinted at in a couple of the brief flashbacks; it also has direct support from Gammell's dialogue, so it seems a stronger possibility than 1 and 3.

One open question remains for me: Where did Lenny get the name "John G." from in the first place? I can't remember that ever being explained. Maybe I missed it. I'll have to watch the movie again, in the intended sequence.

The Second Viewing

Having viewed the film in chronological order and typed up everything above, I rewatched the film a day later, in the canonical order. The goal was to see how my impression of the film would change, watching it in the original ordering.

A major thing I noticed was that I'd made some straight out mistakes in my recollection of events as listed above:

Besides these outright errors, there were many other interesting observations I made in my second viewing. Again, I recorded them as I watched, this time ending up with a single page of notes.

The Notes - Second Viewing

The Second Conclusion

I'm astounded at how different my perception of this film is after the second viewing. The whole idea that Lenny killed his wife himself never really hit home the first time, because it appeared midway through the film and I simply wrote it off as another one of what seemed to be many unreliable stories that Teddy told. That opened the door to alternative explanations, including the one that really took hold of me: that Natalie was his wife.

I realise now that the Natalie theory has too many holes in it to stand up properly, but it had seemed so convincing at the time, particularly given the development of the scenes between Lenny and Natalie towards the end of the chronology, when I was looking for the giveaway clues as to what was going on.

The original ordering also makes Lenny seem much more ruthless, as it emphasises his conscious decision to set Teddy up as the next in a series of "John G."s. In the chronological ordering, Lenny comes across as a more sympathetic character, who is likely being manipulated by the people around him. The horror of him setting up Teddy is lost in the middle of the film, and the focus is put on his killing of Teddy, which made me seriously consider the possibility that Teddy is the one who killed his wife, and that the final act of the story was justice being done.

In the end, I see why the film was structured the way it was. The revelation that Lenny (probably) killed his own wife is the climactic moment and properly belongs at the end of the film. Having said that, I don't think my enjoyment of the film suffered in any way from seeing it first in chronological order. If anything, it made that moment of realisation all the more shocking and powerful, as I'd actually known it all along but hadn't really believed it the first time. I think this experiment was valuable and a good experience, and I'm very glad I did it.

Now I have to go watch the film again to pick up the fragments I missed on the first two viewings.


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