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Memento. Why Nolan's First Movie Is Still a Masterpiece

The story begins with a peculiar character, Leonard, whose wife has been raped and murdered. Therefore, he goes after vengeance, trying to find the killer. But he suffers from a severe mental condition. He lost his short-term memory the day of the murder because he was knocked out by the killer, so he can’t create new memories and forgets all the recent events of his life.

To help his own investigation, Leonard takes pictures of everything with his polaroid camera and writes notes in them to remember people or locations. He doesn't want to trust anybody because he's aware that people can take advantage of his condition.


So, what's new in this type of story?

At first sight, it seems that it’s no more than a regular crime movie, but the truth is nothing is what it seems. Nolan knows how to connect with the audience, and he does it with an uncommon but accurate strategy: he tells the story backward, placing in the first scene the murder committed by Leonard with his sought “murderer”. And gradually, throughout the movie, Nolan let us see some clues and indicators that tell us that maybe some things have slipped away from Leonard.

With this strategy, the audience is forced to try to remember all the things that have been happening since the very first minute. Just like Leonard, we have to make notes (in our case, mentally) of every suspicious circumstance or character so we don’t get lost in the movie. It requires an additional effort to try to keep all the details and Nolan has made sure that we are under the skin of the main character. Every time the director denies some kind of information to the character so does he with us because we are walking alongside Leonard. And every time he's confused, we are confused.

This method plays a fundamental part at the end of the movie (spoilers ahead). The truth is told by another character, Teddy, who explains to him everything. He was the policeman in charge of investigating the rape of Leonard’s wife and he has, in fact, helped him to find, a year ago, the person responsible for doing it. But the bitter truth that Teddy tells is that Leonard killed his own wife by mistake with insulin.

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And here's when we come into conflict for a few minutes just like him

We don't know if that's true or not, yet it seems so. We don't want to cope with that reality but we start to put together the pieces of the puzzle. It's hard to believe Teddy’s version because we have been empathizing during the whole movie with Leonard’s cause, watching all the events and clues from his perspective. But Leonard only trusts his notes and his tattoos without questioning them, because he only trusts himself, and so do we, even though he has been avoiding the truth all the time.

He chooses not to remember the truth by writing in Teddy´s polaroid “Don´t believe his lies”, conditioning all his future decisions related to his investigation. Leonard knows that if he remembers that, he doesn't have any purpose left in life. So, he carries on with endless persecution. He can't move on not only because he can’t process the passing of time but because of his choice to forget.


Nolan brings an important idea in this movie: reality as a matter of perspective. To contribute to this meaning, he separates the story into two parts. One is told in chronological order and it's shown in black and white. It's the story of Sammy Jenkins and his wife. Here we see elements that are objectively true like the loss of the short-term memory of “Sammy” or the diabetes of his wife. The other part of the story is told in color and unchronological order. It's the subjective side of the story, where we see everything from the perspective of Leonard.

Nolan brought to light with this movie another way to tell stories. Without the backward effect, the movie would have lost not only its meaning but the sensations that rest with the audience. We wouldn't have lived everything that experienced Leonard in the same way. It would be a completely different movie, something in the crime genre with a well-twisted plot. Instead of that, he managed to bring much more to the movie with unexpected deep meanings that make you overthink this movie days after you first watch it.

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