“What is truth?”
– Pontius Pilate
After seeing Inception for the first time in the summer of 2010, Christopher Nolan quickly became my favorite director. Although my enthusiasm has waned over the years, as his films have grown less character driven and more spectacle oriented, I still have a certain fondness for earlier works like Memento. I initially loved it for an intricate, puzzle-like story that yielded exciting new discoveries after every viewing. Coming back to it a few years later, I’m confronted with a raging epistemological debate about how we know truth and if we can know it for sure.
Memento is a film noir and a psychological thriller, set in a vague, unnamed area of downtown businesses, suburbs, and desert. It begins with its vengeful protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), killing the supposed murderer of his wife, based off his own handwritten notes. The notes are because Leonard suffers from a kind of short term memory loss by which he’s constantly forgetting everything since his wife’s murder, when he received a head injury and brain damage.
To simulate Leonard’s constant uncertainty about where he is and how he got there, or just because Nolan likes screwing with time, the story is told in reverse order, beginning with Leonard’s revenge and working backwards to explain how he found the killer. To make matters trickier, there’s also a black and white, forward moving sequence of scenes that are interspersed and meet the backwards sequence at the climax of the movie and a non-linear set of scenes that happened before everything else.
What could have been a hopeless mess of confusion is made fairly straightforward by the shrewd, decisive methods Leonard uses in carrying out his investigation. Among his untrustworthy allies is the undercover cop, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), whose playful banter with Leonard carries much of the story’s humor, and the bartender, Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), who functions as the story’s classic femme fatale.
Both characters manipulate Leonard for their own purposes, but Teddy’s idiotic charm and the way he actually seems to care about Leonard as a friend makes their relationship a complex one. Natalie has a darker personality and spends most of the film dealing with the aftermath of her drug dealing boyfriend’s murder. Her story of tragedy and survival mirrors Leonard’s, with the added irony that he was the one who mistakenly killed her boyfriend and forgot about it.
Through flashbacks, Leonard also compares himself to Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), a client of his insurance company who had the same memory condition. Whereas Sammy lives out his post-accident days in a subdued, couch lounging state of commercial watching and losing track of time, Leonard is always on the move, driven by purpose. Sammy didn’t have a reason to remember, and ended up causing his own wife’s death by giving her repeated doses of insulin when she tried to test his ability to create new memories, but Leonard lost his wife to crime.
Or did he?
The film’s twist ending is that Leonard is Sammy, and that his wife was never murdered, only attacked. She died from the insulin overdose, leaving Leonard, with the help of Teddy, to hunt down the attacker who gave him his condition. They were successful in the revenge, but it wasn’t enough for Leonard. He destroyed evidence, planted false clues, and created an unsolvable puzzle for himself, so that he could lie and continue his “romantic quest,” pretending he had purpose.
How can we know truth and can we know it for sure? According to Memento, truth is knowable. After some investigation, Leonard found his wife’s attacker. The difficult part is accepting it. Leonard is consumed by his hunger for more revenge, more purpose, more “happiness,” as he calls it. Like the unrighteous subjects of God’s wrath in Romans, Leonard has knowledge, but suppresses it.
The darker side to Nolan’s epistemology is the actual truth Leonard uncovers: life is meaningless. Every action we take is a misguided pursuit of fulfillment, for which we build false premises so that we can believe in something. Leonard knows he can’t end up a lethargic couch potato, like Sammy Jankis, his past self. So he makes up purpose.
His words near the film’s close are even reminiscent of Descartes: “I have to believe in the world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them.” As the first of nine studio films by Nolan so far, Memento could be seen as something of a premise in the philosophical argument he’s making through his filmography. Life is meaningless, but humans can create meaning to be happy. This lays the groundwork for his more optimistic, secular humanist films like Interstellar and Dunkirk, putting a reason to the existence his characters fight so hard for.
It’s this kind of cynical view of morality and truth that puts Memento in the legacy of nihilistic film noirs like Chinatown, and outside the path of principled noirs like Double Indemnity and Rope. It’s a time gone by when stories of violence and darkness would end with a rebuke of evil, coupled with a lament for good things lost because of the wrongdoing. Films like Memento end with a resignation to the cycle of sin.
There’s a brief scene where Leonard is sitting on a couch, watching commercials in the same distracted way that Sammy Jankis did. Sammy was confused by anything longer than a few minutes, but “liked commercials. They were short.” Although the scene is also short, there’s a certain ambiguity to how long Leonard actually sat in front of the TV, since he would be incapable of remembering. Similarly, there’s no telling how many months or years have passed since his injury. Leonard keeps watching commercials until he notices his “remember Sammy Jankis,” tattoo and turns the TV off. These kinds of “mirrors,” as Leonard calls them, are reminders of history and warnings against repeating it, but can be deadly when distorted or misinterpreted.
Leonard goes through a cycle of truth suppression, mad confusion, ruin, and realization of his lies that’s reminiscent of biblical Israel’s repeated sin, repentance, and deliverance in Judges. The repeated phrase, “And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD,” comes again and again after the death of God’s chosen judges. Men sent to save Israel and remind them of their God eventually die, leaving them to slip into sin, while Teddy’s death as the one, occasionally honest character leaves Leonard succumbing to self-deception. In both cases, the cycle seems endless and inescapable, but for a true a redeemer.
Memento is a radically postmodern noir, meant to confuse, unsettle, and distance viewers from the truth. Its uncommon narrative structure and compelling characters have carved out its place in film history, where audiences can experience reality from the perspective of an accident of evolution. They can see life as one whose mind evolved to survive, rather than perceive truth, and relish in the perplexing puzzle of unknowables before returning to the real world and saying to themselves, “Thank God life actually makes sense.”