|Based On:||Short story|
|Studio:||Newmarket Capital Group|
Memento is presented as two different sequences of scenes: a series in black-and-white that are shown chronologically, and a series of color sequences shown in reverse order. The two sequences "meet" at the end of the film, producing one common story. It stars Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, a man with anterograde amnesia, which impairs his ability to store new explicit memories. During the opening credits, which portray the end of the story, it is shown that Leonard kills Teddy (Joe Pantoliano). The film suggests that this killing is vengeance for the rape and murder of his wife (Jorja Fox) based on information provided by Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss).
Memento premiered on September 5, 2000, at the Venice International Film Festival to critical acclaim and received a similar response when it was released in European theaters starting in October 2000. Critics especially praised its unique, nonlinear narrative structure and themes of memory, perception, grief, self-deception, and revenge. The film was successful at the box office and received numerous accolades, including Academy Award nominations for Original Screenplay and Film Editing.
A backwards sequence is shown. It starts with the Polaroid photograph of a dead man. As the sequence plays backwards the photo reverts to its undeveloped state, entering the camera before the man is shot in the head. This is followed by interspersed black-and-white and color sequences, with the black-and-white sequences taking place chronologically before the color sequences.
The black-and-white sequences begin with Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) in a motel room speaking to an unnamed caller. Leonard has anterograde amnesia and is unable to store recent memories, the result of an attack by two men. Leonard killed the attacker who raped and strangled his wife (Jorja Fox), but a second clubbed him and escaped. The police did not accept there was a second attacker, but Leonard believes he is called John with a last name starting with G. Leonard conducts his own investigation using a system of notes, Polaroid photos, and tattoos. As an insurance investigator, Leonard recalls one Sammy Jankis, also diagnosed with the same condition. Sammy's diabetic wife, repeatedly requested insulin injections to try and trigger his memory, hoping Sammy would remember the previous dose. He did not and as a result, she fell into a coma and died.
The color sequences are shown in reverse chronological order. Leonard gets a tattoo, based on instructions to himself, of the license plate of John G. Finding a note in his clothes, he meets Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), a bartender who resents Leonard as he wears the clothes and drives the car of her boyfriend, Jimmy. After understanding his condition, she uses it to get Leonard to drive a man named Dodd out of town and offers to run the license plate to help his investigation. Meanwhile, Leonard meets with a contact, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano). Teddy helps with Dodd, but warns him about Natalie; however, Leonard has written on a photo of Teddy to not trust him. Natalie provides Leonard the driver's license, which shows a John Edward Gammell, the real name of Teddy. Confirming Leonard's information on "John G" and his warnings, Leonard meets Teddy and drives him to an abandoned building, killing him as shown in the opening.
In the final black-and-white sequence, prompted by the caller, Leonard meets Teddy in the motel lobby. Teddy is an undercover officer and has found Leonard's "John G", Natalie’s boyfriend Jimmy Grantz, and directs Leonard to the same abandoned building outside of town. When Jimmy arrives, Leonard strangles him and takes a photo of the body. As it develops the black-and-white transitions to color, thus beginning the color sequences. Leonard swaps clothes with Jimmy, hearing Jimmy whisper "Sammy". As Leonard has only told the story of Sammy to those he has met, he doubts Jimmy is the attacker. Teddy arrives and asserts that Jimmy was John G but eventually reveals that together, they had already found and killed the real attacker over a year ago. Teddy claims that Leonard confused elements of his life with that of Sammy, who was a con man with no wife. Leonard's wife was diabetic, had survived the attack and was the one who died in the insulin overdose. Teddy accuses Leonard of creating an unsolvable puzzle to give himself purpose and points out that since "John G" is a common name, he will continually forget and begin his search again and that even Teddy himself has a John G name. After hearing Teddy's exposition, Leonard consciously burns the photograph of Jimmy's body, drives off in Jimmy's car and has Teddy's license plate number tattooed on himself as the one of the second attacker, which will lead to the events of Teddy's death.
The sujet, or the presentation of the film, is structured with two timelines: one in color and one in black-and-white. The color sequences are alternated with black-and-white sequences. The latter are put together in chronological order. The color ones, though shown forward (except for the very first one, which is shown in reverse) are ordered in reverse. Chronologically, the black-and-white sequences come first, the color sequences come next.
Using the numbering scheme suggested by Andy Klein in his article for Salon magazine who took numbers from 1 to 22 for the black-and-white sequences and letters A-V for the color ones the plotting of the film as presented is: Opening Credits (shown "backward"), 1, V, 2, U, 3, T, 4, S, ..., 22/A, Credits.
There is a smooth transition from the black-and-white sequence 22 to color sequence A and it occurs during the development of a Polaroid photograph.
The fabula of the film (the chronological order of the story) can be viewed as a "Hidden feature" on the 2-Disc Limited Edition Region 1 DVD  and the 3-Disc special Edition Region 2 DVD. In this special feature the chapters of the film are put together into the chronological order and is shown: Ending Credits (run in reverse), 1, 2, 3, ..., 22, A, B, ..., V, then the opening title runs "backward" to what was shown (the opening title sequence is run in reverse during the actual film, so it is shown forward in this version).
Stefano Ghislotti wrote an article in Film Anthology which discusses how Nolan provides the viewer with the clues necessary to decode sujet/plotline as we watch and help us understand the fabula/story from it. The color sequences include a brief overlap to help clue the audience in to the fact that they are being presented in reverse order. The purpose of the fragmented reverse sequencing is to force the audience into a sympathetic experience of Leonard's defective short-term memory, where prior events are not recalled, since the audience has yet to see them.
In July 1996, brothers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan took a cross-country road trip from Chicago to Los Angeles, as Christopher was relocating his home to the West Coast. During the drive, Jonathan pitched the story for the film to his brother, who responded enthusiastically to the idea. After they arrived in Los Angeles, Jonathan left for Washington, D.C., to finish college. Christopher repeatedly asked Jonathan to send him a first draft, and after a few months, Jonathan complied. Two months later, Christopher came up with the idea to tell the film backwards, and began to work on the screenplay. Jonathan wrote the short story simultaneously, and the brothers continued to correspond, sending each other subsequent revisions of their respective works.
Jonathan's short story, titled "Memento Mori", is radically different from Christopher's film, although it maintains the same essential elements. In Jonathan's version, Leonard is instead named Earl and is a patient at a mental institution. As in the film, his wife was killed by an anonymous man, and during the attack on his wife, Earl lost his short-term memory. Like Leonard, Earl leaves notes to himself and has tattoos with information about the killer. However, in the short story, Earl convinces himself through his own written notes to escape the mental institution and murder his wife's killer. Unlike the film, there is no ambiguity that Earl finds and kills the anonymous man.
In July 1997, Christopher's then-girlfriend Emma Thomas showed his screenplay to Aaron Ryder, an executive for Newmarket Films. Ryder said the script was, "perhaps the most innovative script I had ever seen", and soon after, it was optioned by Newmarket and given a budget of $4.5 million. Pre-production lasted seven weeks, during which the main shooting location changed from Montreal, Quebec to Los Angeles, California, to create a more realistic and noirish atmosphere for the film.
Brad Pitt was initially slated to play the lead role of Leonard. Pitt was interested in the part, but passed due to scheduling conflicts. Other considered actors include Aaron Eckhart and Thomas Jane, but the role went to Guy Pearce, who impressed Nolan the most. Pearce was chosen partly for his "lack of celebrity" (after Pitt passed on the film, they "decided to eschew the pursuit of A-list stars and make the film for less money by using an affordable quality actor"), and his enthusiasm for the role, evidenced by a personal phone call Pearce made to Nolan to discuss the part.
After being impressed by Carrie-Anne Moss' performance as Trinity in the 1999 science fiction film The Matrix, Jennifer Todd suggested her for the part of Natalie. While Mary McCormack lobbied for the role, Nolan decided to cast Moss as Natalie, saying, "She added an enormous amount to the role of Natalie that wasn't on the page". For the corrupt police officer Teddy, Moss suggested her co-star from The Matrix, Joe Pantoliano. Although there was a concern that Pantoliano might be too villainous for the part, he was still cast, and Nolan said he was surprised by the actor's subtlety in his performance.
The rest of the film's characters were quickly cast after the three main leads were established. Stephen Tobolowsky and Harriet Sansom Harris play Sammy Jankis and his wife, respectively. Mark Boone Junior landed the role of Burt, the motel clerk, because Jennifer Todd liked his "look and attitude" for the part (as a result he has re-appeared in minor roles in other productions by Nolan). Larry Holden plays Jimmy Grantz, a drug dealer and Natalie's boyfriend, while Callum Keith Rennie performs the part of Dodd, a thug to whom Jimmy owes money. Rounding out the cast is Jorja Fox as Leonard's wife and Kimberly Campbell as a prostitute.
Filming took place from September 7 to October 8, 1999, a 25-day shooting schedule. Pearce was on set every day during filming, although all three principal actors (including Pantoliano and Moss) only performed together the first day, shooting exterior sequences outside Natalie's house. All of Moss' scenes were completed in the first week, including follow-up scenes at Natalie's home, Ferdy's bar, and the restaurant where she meets Leonard for the final time.
Pantoliano returned to the set late in the second week to continue filming his scenes. On September 25, the crew shot the opening scene in which Leonard kills Teddy. Although the scene is in reverse motion, Nolan used forward-played sounds. For a shot of a shell casing flying upwards, the shell had to be dropped in front of the camera in forward motion, but it constantly rolled out of frame. Nolan was forced to blow the casing out of frame instead, but in the confusion, the crew shot it backwards. They then had to make an optical (a copy of the shot) and reverse the shot to make it go forward again. "That was the height of complexity in terms of the film", Nolan says. "An optical to make a backwards running shot forwards, and the forwards shot is a simulation of a backwards shot."
The next day, on September 26, Larry Holden returned to shoot the sequence where Leonard attacks Jimmy. After filming was completed five days later, Pearce's voice-overs were recorded. For the black-and-white scenes, Pearce was given free rein to improvise his narrative, allowing for a documentary feel.
The Hillcrest Inn in Tujunga, California, was repainted and used as the interior of Leonard's and Dodd's motel rooms and the exterior of the film's Discount Inn. Scenes in Sammy Jankis' house were shot in a suburban home close to Pasadena, while Natalie's house was located in Burbank. The crew planned to shoot the derelict building set (where Leonard kills Teddy and Jimmy) in a Spanish-styled brick building owned by a train company. However, one week before shooting began, the company placed several dozen train carriages outside the building, making the exterior unfilmable. Since the interior of the building had already been built as a set, a new location had to be found. An oil refinery near Long Beach was used instead, and the scene where Leonard burns his wife's possessions was filmed on the other side of the refinery.
David Julyan composed the film's synthesized score. Julyan acknowledges several synthesized soundtracks that inspired him, such as Vangelis' Blade Runner and Hans Zimmer's The Thin Red Line. While composing the score, Julyan created different, distinct sounds to differentiate between the color and black-and-white scenes: "brooding and classical" themes in the former, and "oppressive and rumbly noise" in the latter. Since he describes the entire score as "Leonard's theme", Julyan says, "The emotion I was aiming at with my music was yearning and loss. But a sense of loss you feel but at the same time you don't know what it is you have lost, a sense of being adrift." Initially, Nolan wanted to use Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" during the end credits, but he was unable to secure the rights. Instead, David Bowie's "Something in the Air" is used, although another of Radiohead's songs, an extended version of "Treefingers", is included on the film's soundtrack.
The film gained substantial word-of-mouth press from the film festival circuit. It premiered at the 2000 Venice International Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation, and afterwards played at Deauville American Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. With the publicity from these events, Memento did not have trouble finding foreign distributors, opening in more than 20 countries worldwide. Its promotion tour ended at the Sundance Film Festival, where it played in January 2001.
Finding American distributors proved more troublesome. Memento was screened for various studio heads (including Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein) in March 2000. Although most of the executives loved the film and praised Nolan's talent, all passed on distributing the picture, believing it was too confusing and would not attract a large audience. After famed independent film director Steven Soderbergh saw the film and learned it was not being distributed, he championed the film in interviews and public events, giving it even more publicity, although he did not secure a distributor. Newmarket, in a financially risky move, decided to distribute the film itself. After the first few weeks of distribution, Memento had reached more than 500 theaters and earned a domestic total of $25 million in its box-office run. The film's success was surprising to those who passed on the film, so much so that Weinstein realized his mistake and tried to buy the film from Newmarket.
Jonathan Nolan designed the film's official website. As with the marketing strategy of The Blair Witch Project, the website was intended to provide further clues and hints to the story, while not providing any concrete information. After a short intro on the website, the viewer is shown a newspaper clipping detailing Leonard's murder of Teddy. Clicking on highlighted words in the article leads to more material describing the film, including Leonard's notes and photographs as well as police reports. The filmmakers employed another tactic by sending out Polaroid pictures to random people, depicting a bloody and shirtless Leonard pointing at an unmarked spot on his chest. Since Newmarket distributed the film themselves, Christopher Nolan edited the film's trailers himself. Sold to inexpensive cable-TV channels like Bravo and A&E, and websites such as Yahoo and MSN, the trailers were key to the film gaining widespread public notice.
Memento was released on DVD and VHS in the United States and Canada on September 4, 2001, and in the United Kingdom on January 14, 2002. The UK edition contains a hidden feature that allows the viewer to watch the film in chronological order. The Canadian version does not have this feature but the film chapters are set up to do this manually or through DVD programming. The original US release does not have the chronological feature nor are the chapters set up correctly to do it.
The film was later re-released in a limited edition DVD that features an audio commentary by Christopher Nolan, the original short story by Jonathan Nolan on which the film was based, and a Sundance Channel documentary on the making of the film. The limited edition DVD also contains a hidden feature that allows the viewer to watch the film in chronological order.
The Limited Edition DVD is uniquely packaged to look like Leonard's case file from a mental institution, with notes scribbled by "doctors" and Leonard on the inside. The DVD menus are designed as a series of psychological tests; the viewer has to choose certain words, objects, and multiple choice answers to play the movie or access special features. Leonard's "notes" on the DVD case offer clues to navigating the DVD.
Memento was re-released in the UK on a 3-disc Special Edition DVD on December 27, 2004. This release contains all the special features that are on the two US releases in one package plus a couple of new interviews. The menus appear as tattoos on a body and are more straightforward than the US 2-disc limited edition DVD.
Memento was released on Blu-ray Disc on August 15, 2006. This release lacks the special features contained on the Limited Edition DVD, but does include the audio commentary by director Christopher Nolan. The single-layer disc features an MPEG-2 1080p transfer and PCM 5.1 surround audio. The film was also released on iTunes as a digital download.
The film was re-released on the Blu-ray and DVD in the USA on 22 February 2011 by Lionsgate following the 10th anniversary of the film. Both the Blu-ray and DVD have a new transfer that was also shown in theaters recently. Aside from the transfer, the Blu-ray contains a new special featurette by Nolan on the film's legacy.
Memento was a box office success. During its opening weekend, it was released in only 11 theaters, but by week 11 it was distributed to more than 500 theaters. It grossed $25,544,867 in North America and $14,178,229 in other countries, making the film's total worldwide gross some $40 million as of August 2007. During its theatrical run, it did not place higher than eighth in the list of highest-grossing movies for a single weekend.
The film was nominated for Academy Awards in Original Screenplay and Editing, but did not win in either category. Because Jonathan Nolan's short story was not published before the film was released, it was nominated for Original Screenplay instead of Adapted Screenplay. It was also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, but lost to The Believer. However, it won 13 awards for Best Screenplay and five awards for Best Picture from various film critic associations and festivals, including the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Sundance Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. Christopher Nolan was nominated for three Best Director awards including the Directors Guild of America Award and was awarded one from the Independent Spirit Awards. Pearce was accorded Best Actor from the San Diego Film Critics Society and the Las Vegas Film Critics Society.
Memento was met with near universal critical acclaim, earning a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a website that aggregates professional critiques. Online film critic James Berardinelli gave the film four out of four stars, ranking it number one on his year-end Top Ten list and number sixty-three on his All-Time Top 100 films.  In his review, he called it an "endlessly fascinating, wonderfully open-ended motion picture [that] will be remembered by many who see it as one of the best films of the year". Berardinelli praised the film's backwards narrative, saying that "what really distinguishes this film is its brilliant, innovative structure", and noted that Guy Pearce gives an "astounding...tight, and thoroughly convincing performance". In 2009, Berardinelli chose Memento as his #3 best movie of the decade. William Arnold of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer writes that Memento is a "delicious one-time treat", and emphasizes that director Christopher Nolan "not only makes Memento work as a non-linear puzzle film, but as a tense, atmospheric thriller". Rob Blackwelder noted that "Nolan has a crackerjack command over the intricacies of this story. He makes every single element of the film a clue to the larger picture...as the story edges back toward the origins of [Leonard's] quest".
However, not all critics were impressed with the film's structure. Marjorie Baumgarten wrote, "In forward progression, the narrative would garner little interest, thus making the reverse storytelling a filmmaker's conceit." Sean Burns of the Philadelphia Weekly commented that "For all its formal wizardry, Memento is ultimately an ice-cold feat of intellectual gamesmanship. Once the visceral thrill of the puzzle structure begins to wear off, there's nothing left to hang onto. The film itself fades like one of Leonard's temporary memories." While Roger Ebert gave the film a favorable three out of four stars, he did not think it warranted multiple viewings. After watching Memento twice, he concluded that "Greater understanding helped on the plot level, but didn't enrich the viewing experience. Confusion is the state we are intended to be in." Jonathan Rosenbaum disliked the film, and commented in his review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that Memento is a "gimmicky and unpoetic counterfeit" of Alain Resnais's 1968 film Je t'aime, je t'aime.
Many medical experts have cited Memento as one of the most realistic and accurate depictions of anterograde amnesia in any motion picture. Caltech neuroscientist Christof Koch called Memento "the most accurate portrayal of the different memory systems in the popular media," while physician Esther M. Sternberg, Director of the Integrative Neural Immune Program at the National Institute of Mental Health, identified the film as "close to a perfect exploration of the neurobiology of memory."
Sternberg concludes: "This thought-provoking thriller is the kind of movie that keeps reverberating in the viewer's mind, and each iteration makes one examine preconceived notions in a different light. Memento is a movie for anyone interested in the workings of memory and, indeed, in what it is that makes our own reality."
Clinical neuropsychologist Sallie Baxendale writes in Memories aren't made of this: amnesia at the movies: "The overwhelming majority of amnesic characters in films bear little relation to any neurological or psychiatric realities of memory loss... Apparently inspired partly by the neuropsychological studies of the famous patient HM (who developed severe anterograde memory impairment after neurosurgery to control his epileptic seizures) and the temporal lobe amnesic syndrome, the film documents the difficulties faced by Leonard, who develops a severe anterograde amnesia after an attack in which his wife is killed. Unlike in most films in this genre, this amnesic character retains his identity, has little retrograde amnesia, and shows several of the severe everyday memory difficulties associated with the disorder. The fragmented, almost mosaic quality to the sequence of scenes in the film also reflects the 'perpetual present' nature of the syndrome."
|2009||The A.V. Club||The Best Films of the '00s||5|||
|2008||Empire||The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time||173|||
|2005||Internet Movie Database (IMDb)||15th Anniversary Top 15 Films|
for the Last 15 Years
|Empire||The 50 Greatest Independent Films||13|||
|2003||1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die||N/A|||
|2001||National Board of Review (NBR)||Top 10 Films of the Year|||
|American Film Institute (AFI)|||
. Christof Koch. The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach. Roberts and Company Publishers. 2004. 0974707708. 196.