|Released:||December 15, 2000 (limited)|
|Budget:||US$ 4.5 million|
Memento is a 2000 psychological thriller film written and directed by Christopher Nolan, adapted from his brother Jonathan's short story "Memento Mori." It stars Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, a former insurance fraud investigator searching for the man he believes raped and killed his wife during a burglary. Leonard suffers from anterograde amnesia, which he contracted from severe head trauma during the attack on his wife. This renders his brain unable to store new memories. To cope with his condition, he maintains a system of notes, photographs, and tattoos to record information about himself and others, including his wife's killer. He is aided in his investigation by Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), neither of whom he can trust.
The film's events unfold in two separate, alternating narratives—one in color, and the other in black and white. The black and white sections are told in chronological order, showing Leonard conversing with an anonymous phone caller in a motel room. Leonard's investigation is depicted in five-minute color sequences that are in reverse chronological order. As each scene begins, Leonard has just lost his recent memories, leaving him unaware of where he is or what he was doing. The scene ends just after its events fade from his memory. By reversing the order, the spectator is unaware of the preceding events, just like Leonard. By the film's end, the two narratives converge into a single color sequence.
Memento premiered on September 5, 2000 at the Venice Film Festival to critical acclaim and received a similar response when it was released in theaters on December 15, 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 Editing.
Note: The story is explained here in its chronological order, rather than the way it unfolds in the film.
Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) wakes up in an anonymous hotel room oblivious to his state. He has a phone conversation with an unknown caller in which he relates the story of Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), a man who suffered from anterograde amnesia, which prevented him from forming new memories. Leonard was previously an insurance fraud investigator assigned to determine if Sammy's condition could be covered under his insurance policy. If his condition qualified as a physical injury that prevented him from carrying out his job, he and his wife (Harriet Sansom Harris) would be covered.
During his research, Leonard discovered that anterograde amnesia sufferers are still able to condition themselves to perform certain tasks. After Sammy repeatedly failed a conditioning test, Leonard concluded that Sammy's memory loss was psychological, not physical, and the insurance claim was denied on grounds that Sammy was not covered for mental illnesses. Under the impression he could be cured if this was true, Sammy's wife came back to the insurance agency, asking Leonard if he believed that Sammy was faking his short-term memory loss. Believing she wanted some kind of answer, Leonard diplomatically restated the insurer's position: he believed Sammy was physically capable of creating new memories. Sammy's wife, a diabetic, tried to confirm her belief that Sammy could make new memories by testing him, asking him repeatedly to give her an injection of insulin, every 20 minutes.After several doses, he unknowingly administered an overdose sending his wife into a coma. Sammy was later confined to a mental institution, incapable of remembering her death.
Leonard tells the caller how his own wife (Jorja Fox) died: one night, two men broke into his home and raped and murdered her in the bathroom. Leonard woke up and shot one intruder but was attacked from behind by a second man. He developed anterograde amnesia as a result of the injuries to his head, preventing him from remembering anything occurring after his accident for more than several minutes.
Leonard is determined to locate and kill the second intruder to avenge his wife's death. He develops a system to compensate for his complete short-term memory loss which involves taking instant pictures with a Polaroid 690 camera, writing notes to himself, and tattooing important facts on his body. One of the few clues to the second intruder's identity is a tattoo saying the killer's name is "John or James G.". Teddy, the mysterious caller, later meets Leonard outside his hotel and tells him that the murderer is a drug dealer, and that he can be found at an abandoned building outside of town. Leonard goes to the building and ambushes a man named Jimmy Grantz (Larry Holden), who recognizes Leonard. Leonard forces Jimmy to take off his clothes before killing him. He then puts on Jimmy's clothes so that he can dispose of his own bloody ones.
A few minutes later, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) arrives at the abandoned building, and Leonard discovers he has been tricked. Jimmy Grantz was a local drug dealer and was not involved in his wife's murder. Teddy claims that Leonard's wife survived the robbers' attack, but tells Leonard she died from an insulin overdose administered by Leonard himself. According to Teddy, Sammy Jankis was a fraud who was not even married and that Leonard has somehow transposed his personal history onto his long-term memory of the Jankis case. Teddy claims to be a police officer who took pity on Leonard and helped him track down and kill the real John G. more than a year before. But Leonard forgot that he had taken his revenge and began searching for John G. again. Teddy admits that he manipulated Leonard into killing Jimmy for the $200,000 in the drug dealer's car. Jimmy brought the money to buy drugs that Teddy falsely claimed to have. Attempting to convince Leonard, Teddy reveals that they have been tracking different "John G."'s in various towns for months and that Teddy himself is also a "John G.".
Leonard, having no way to verify Teddy's account, is at first distraught, unable to clearly remember if his wife had diabetes. Realizing that his long-term memories may not be as sound as he assumed, Leonard has to decide if he believes Teddy or his own memory. Refusing to believe that he killed his own wife, Leonard decides to trust himself and grows furious at Teddy. Before he can forget what has happened, Leonard consciously decides to break free of both his quest and Teddy's manipulations by setting Teddy up as his final victim. He records Teddy's license plate number as John G.'s, leaving himself a note reminding him to have this information tattooed along with the fact that he shouldn't believe Teddy's lies. Leonard takes Jimmy's car, leaves Teddy at the abandoned building, and drives until he finds a tattoo parlor.
At the parlor, Leonard finds a note in his pocket from Jimmy's girlfriend, Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss). Having forgotten Jimmy's murder, his confrontation with Teddy, and his change into Jimmy's clothes, Leonard concludes that the note is meant for him. He goes to the bar where Natalie works and, after meeting her, tells her about his condition. Natalie, recognizing Jimmy's car and clothing, is worried about Jimmy, knowing that he was last going to meet a man named Teddy to purchase drugs. She suspects Teddy is a corrupt cop who's set Jimmy up and that Leonard is somehow involved. She realizes she can use Leonard to learn what happened to Jimmy and, after he forgets their first meeting, offers to help him find John G.. She later tricks him into attacking a man named Dodd (Callum Keith Rennie), who she claims has been harassing her for the money from Jimmy's drug deals. Although he is nearly killed, Leonard forces Dodd to leave town. Teddy tries to intervene several times during Leonard's interactions with Natalie, realizing that he has lost control of his friend, but Leonard, referring back to his note about Teddy's deceit, refuses to listen. At the same time, Leonard begins to grow suspicious, worried that someone is trying to manipulate him into killing the wrong man. Ironically, he is completely unaware that Teddy has already used him in this way and that Leonard has set himself up to kill Teddy.
When Natalie learns Dodd is gone, she has a friend trace John G.'s license plate number from Leonard's tattoo. She gives him a copy of the man's driver's license, and Leonard matches the ID to his photo of Teddy, whose real name is John Edward Gammel - "John G.". Leonard's plan for himself is complete, even though he's forgotten that there was any plan at all: he concludes that Teddy is the man who raped and killed his wife. He takes Teddy to the abandoned building where he killed Jimmy Grantz only a few days before and shoots him in the head. Ignorant of the events that led him to this moment, Leonard takes one last picture of the murder scene, a memento of his quest for revenge.
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 each draft of his own work.
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 for revenge. Unlike the film, there is no ambiguity that Earl finds and kills the anonymous man.
In July 1997, Christopher's 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, Canada to Los Angeles, California, to create a more realistic and noirish atmosphere for the film. The Travel Inn in Tujunga, California, was repainted and used as Leonard's and Dodd's motel rooms. 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.
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, the budget could not afford A-list stars), 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's performance 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 greedy thug owed money by Jimmy. Rounding out the cast is Jorja Fox as Leonard's wife and Kimberly Campbell as the blonde 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's 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.
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 Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation, and afterwards played at Deauville Festival of American Film and the Toronto 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 in the United States and Canada on September 4, 2001, and in the United Kingdom on January 14, 2002. It 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 DVD 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 released in Blu-Ray format in 2006 as a Blu-Ray launch title. This release lacked most of the special features contained on the Limited Edition DVD, save the audio commentary by director Christopher Nolan.
Memento was a box office success. During its opening weekend, it was released in only eleven theaters, but by week eleven it was distributed to more than 500 theaters. It grossed $25,544,867 in North America and $14,178,229 in foreign 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 thirteen 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 and was awarded one from the Independent Spirit Awards. Guy Pearce was accorded Best Actor from the San Diego Film Critics Society and the Las Vegas Film Critics Society.
Memento received an enthusiastic response from critics, earning a 94% 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-one 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." 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 decided that the film relied too much on the story's reverse chronology and 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."
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." Writing in the journal Science, 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."
. Christof Koch. The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach. Roberts and Company Publishers. 2004. 0974707708. 196.