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'Memento' Essay

Joseph is a film enthusiast currently studying accounting and film at University


The Use of Unconventional Editing and a Nonlinear Plot in the film, Memento

Through intricate editing and clever plot development, Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2002) presents a psychologically manipulative conclusion which confronts themes of memory and identity. This can be identified through Memento’s non-linear editing style which reflects Lenny’s memory deficit. Through the ambiguous conclusion, that offers multiple possibilities concerning Lenny’s identity. As well as Lenny’s final monologue, that reveals his true character. All of this is conveyed to the audience through a general sense of manipulation. Even by the time the credits roll, it may be difficult for some to grasp the more thought-provoking concepts in Memento.

Memento’s editing presents its story in a fragmented and disoriented way. It is a perfect allegory to the way Lenny’s memory operates. The scenes in colour are presented in reverse order while the black and white scenes are presented chronologically. Since every scene in colour is separated by one scene in black and white, Memento creates a plot with two distinct timelines. This continuous intercutting lasts until the conclusion of the film. Every cut between a colour scene and a black and white scene represents a memory reset for Lenny. The audience is stuck in his flawed perspective throughout the entire movie as Lenny does not remember what happened fifteen minutes ago. However, this gives the audience the opportunity to piece together the truth.

The film’s two timelines coalesce in the final ten minutes of the film. It is at this point that a revelation is brought to the audience’s attention. Teddy introduces a new theory regarding Lenny’s past life which conflicts with the story Lenny has accepted. There are multiple quick flashbacks at this point in the story which indicates Lenny’s apprehension about what is real. First he imagines his wife surviving the accident. Then he is unsure about whether he gave his wife insulin shots or whether he just pinched her thigh. These flashbacks distort Lenny’s memory and the cohesive sequence of events the audience is trying to piece together. These scenes corroborate what Lenny tells Teddy in the diner, at the beginning of the film. He stated, “Memory’s unreliable. Memory can change the shape of a room, it can change the colour of a car, and memories can be distorted”.

Memory is an interpretation of a sequence of events which occurred in the past. Since Lenny cannot create any new memories he must rely on what he remembers before the accident. This begins a slow decline in the memory and identity of Leonard Shelby. Memories can provide us with a wide range of emotion such as happiness, sorrow, frustration and guilt. Memories also define who we are and why we act the way we do. Lenny cannot create new memories so he must rely on a false sense of identity utilizing his polaroid photos. Lenny may be an entirely different person from who he was before his accident and would never know.

Memento concludes on a purposefully equivocal note. The audience is given several alternate possibilities of Lenny’s life after his accident. The intellectual problem identified with these possibilities is that they are presented through unreliable and manipulative characters. Lenny is unreliable because he possesses anterograde amnesia. Additionally, Lenny manipulates himself as he lies to himself to be happy. On the other hand Teddy presents an alternate possibility to Lenny’s life. Unfortunately, Teddy is also unreliable as he is manipulative and is motivated by greed. He enjoys taking advantage of Lenny by chasing random people named “John G”. He uses Lenny, to supplement his income from his regular profession as a police officer.

Another event that may have occurred aside from the possibilities Lenny and Teddy offered, is presented in one of Memento’s final shots. When Lenny closes his eyes while driving to the tattoo parlor, he thinks of himself with his wife and a tattoo on his chest which states, “I’ve Done It”. This tattoo would insinuate that Lenny killed his wife’s attacker and then continued to live with his wife after the act. It is unknown whether this actually happened because Lenny could be day dreaming. The plot device which points to the idea that Lenny is not day dreaming but remembering an actual event is the picture where he is pointing at his chest. This picture allows the audience to infer that Lenny murdered his wife’s attacker. Then, someone snapped this picture so Lenny would remember what he did. These three options for what truly happened to Lenny after the accident are only possible through nuanced hints placed throughout the movie.

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Lenny’s reaction to the alternate realities surrounding the truth about his wife and the events of her death reveal much of his character. When Teddy presents an alternate possibility to Lenny’s truth, Lenny dismisses it immediately. He then puts a gun to Teddy’s throat so that, Teddy would stop talking. Instead of writing down what Teddy tells him and thinking his options through, Lenny reacts irrationally. He decides that his next target will be Teddy and writes down Teddy’s license plate number. He would rather find the man who murdered his wife than discover what actually happened to her. This exposes the idea that Lenny is out for revenge rather than closure. His flawed desire for vengeance is his main motivation throughout the film. This is only revealed to the audience through his reaction to the many possibilities regarding his wife’s death.

Lenny’s monologue at the end of the film reveals the person he has become. This scene epitomizes how memory influences identity. Before the accident Lenny would have never committed murder. Now, he has no compunction to prevent himself from killing Teddy. He writes down Teddy’s license plate because he knows Teddy’s real name is John Gammel. Lenny realizes that by utilizing this hint, he will be able to hunt down Teddy. “Do I lie to myself to be happy”, is a core idea in Lenny’s monologue. He is willing to believe a false reality if he can catch a man with the same name as his wife’s murderer. This quote reverberates throughout every scene we have witnessed in this film. The plot of Memento presents a different experience once we become aware of Lenny’s heavily distorted sense of morality. He believes that he is doing the right thing, but he is really just trying to satisfy his personal desires.

Quick flashbacks to his wife appear in the latter half of Lenny’s monologue. It is never revealed whether these flashbacks represent a memory Lenny has or an idea he thought. These flashbacks emphasize the sense of manipulation the entire film carries. During these flashbacks he thinks, “I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe my actions still have meaning”. In order to live a satisfying life, Lenny must hunt down his wife’s murderer. If this is a suppressed memory, Lenny’s problem may be psychological instead of physical. His wife may have survived the accident and he is remembering something that happened after the accident. If this is a daydream, he is thinking of something that can never happen. Either way, this editing technique further emphasizes that Lenny lies to himself to be happy.

“We all need memories to remind ourselves who we are”, is one of the last sentences spoken by Lenny in the film. He understands that memories shape the people we are. They give us feelings and can influence our actions. In Lenny’s case, his memories have influenced him in a destructive way. According to Teddy, the real John G was killed by Lenny over a year ago. If this is true, Lenny has been murdering innocent people for over a year. He has become lost in his quest for vengeance. It does not matter who he was before the accident because that version of Lenny is gone. He knows that he will not be happy until he catches his wife’s murderer.

In conclusion, Memento’s core themes revolve around memory and identity. These themes are exhibited through a creative editing style and a complex plot. The fragmented editing style reflects Lenny’s anterograde amnesia. He lives his life without knowing what happened fifteen minutes ago just as the audience does not know what happened before each scene in colour. The multiple realities offered at the climax of the film showcase Lenny’s unknown identity. The truth of what happened to his wife and the events of her death are not as important to Lenny as finding his John G. Lenny’s final monologue demonstrates how memory and identity are interconnected. Due to Lenny’s fractured memory, his personal identity was altered. Every fiber of his being is now set out on a course for revenge. These themes and ideas are presented throughout the entirety of Memento with a sense of manipulation. Through unreliable characters and an ambiguous conclusion, Memento showcases a story about a man, in his relentless quest for revenge that he can never truly achieve.

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