ⓘ Memento (film)
Memento is a 2000 American neo-noir psychological thriller film written and directed by Christopher Nolan, and produced by Suzanne and Jennifer Todd. The films script was based on a pitch by Jonathan Nolan, who later wrote the story "Memento Mori" from the concept. Guy Pearce stars as a man who, as a result of an injury, has anterograde amnesia and has short-term memory loss approximately every fifteen minutes. He is searching for the people who attacked him and killed his wife, using an intricate system of Polaroid photographs and tattoos to track information he cannot remember.
Memento is presented as two different sequences of scenes interspersed during the film: a series in black-and-white that is shown chronologically, and a series of color sequences shown in reverse order simulating for the audience the mental state of the protagonist. The two sequences meet at the end of the film, producing one complete and cohesive narrative.
Memento premiered at the 57th Venice International Film Festival on September 5, 2000, and was released in the United States on March 16, 2001. It was acclaimed by critics, who praised its nonlinear narrative structure and motifs of memory, perception, grief, and self-deception, and earned $39.7 million over a $4.5 million budget. It received numerous accolades, including Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing. The film was subsequently ranked one of the best films of the 2000s by several critics and media outlets. In 2016, it was voted 25th among 100 films considered the best of the 21st century by 117 film critics from around the world. Memento was considered "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" by the US Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2017, the first narrative feature of the 2000s to be honored.
The film 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. The film then continues, alternating between black and white and color sequences.
The black and white sequences begin with Leonard Shelby, an insurance investigator, in a motel room speaking to an unseen and unknown caller. Leonard has anterograde amnesia and is unable to store recent memories, the result of an attack by two men. Leonard explains that he killed the attacker who raped and strangled his wife, but a second clubbed him and escaped. The police did not accept that there was a second attacker, but Leonard believes the attackers name is John or James, with a last name starting with G. So, Leonard conducts his own investigation using a convoluted system of notes, Polaroid photos, and tattoos. From his occupation in the insurance industry, Leonard recalls a fellow anterograde amnesiac, Sammy Jankis. Sammys diabetic wife, who wasnt sure if his condition was genuine, repeatedly requested Sammys assistance with her insulin shots; she hoped he would remember having already given her an injection and would stop himself from giving her another before she died of an overdose. However, Sammy continues to administer the injections, and his wife falls into a fatal coma.
The color sequences are shown reverse-chronologically. In the storys chronology, Leonard self-directively gets a tattoo of John Gs license plate. Finding a note in his clothes, he meets Natalie, a bartender who resents Leonard because he wears the clothes and drives the car of her boyfriend, Jimmy Grantz. After understanding Leonards condition, she uses it to get Leonard to drive a man named Dodd out of town and offers to run the license plate as a favor. Meanwhile, Leonard meets with a contact, Teddy, who helps with Dodd, but warns about Natalie. However, a photograph causes Leonard not to trust Teddy. Natalie provides Leonard with the drivers license for a John Edward Gammell, Teddys full name. Confirming Leonards information on "John G" and his warnings, Leonard drives Teddy to an abandoned building, leading to the opening, where he shoots him.
In the final black-and-white sequence, prompted by the caller, Leonard meets with Teddy, an undercover officer, who has found Leonards "John G," Jimmy, and directs Leonard to the abandoned building. When Jimmy arrives, Leonard strangles him fatally and takes a Polaroid photo of the body. As the photo develops, the black-and-white transitions to the final color sequence. Leonard swaps clothes with Jimmy, hearing him whisper "Sammy." As Leonard has only told Sammys story to those he has met, he suddenly doubts Jimmys role. Teddy arrives and asserts that Jimmy was John G, but when Leonard is undeterred, Teddy reveals that he helped him kill the real attacker a year ago, and he has been using Leonard ever since. Teddy points out that since the name "John G" is common, Leonard will cyclically forget and begin again and that even Teddy himself has a "John G" name. Further, Teddy claims that Sammys story is Leonards own story, a memory Leonard has repressed to escape guilt referencing an earlier black-and-white scene where Sammy is replaced by Leonard for a split-second as he sits in the asylum.
After hearing Teddy confess all of this, Leonard burns the photograph of dead Jimmy and monologues that he is willing to lie to himself in order to get justice against anyone who has wronged him. He therefore targets Teddy by ordering a tattoo of Teddys license plate number and writing a note to himself that Teddy is not to be trusted so that he will mistake Teddy for John G. and kill him. Leonard drives off in Jimmys car, confident that, despite this lie, he will retain enough awareness of the world to know that his actions have consequences.
2. Film structure
The syuzhet 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 - who took numbers from 1 to 22 for the black-and-white sequences and letters A–V for the color ones in his article for Salon magazine - 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 the sujet as we watch and help us understand the fabula from it. The color sequences include a brief overlap to help clue the audience into 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 Leonards defective ability to create new long-term memories, where prior events are not recalled, since the audience has yet to see them.
3.1. Production Development
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 at Georgetown University. The mysterious killer character known only as "John G." was actually an homage to Jonathans Georgetown University screenwriting professor at the time, John Glavin. 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. Christopher initially wrote the script as a linear story, and then would "go back and reorder it the way it is on screen to check the logic of it." Nolan was also influenced by the short story "Funes the Memorius" by Jorge Luis Borges. "I think Memento is a strange cousin to Funes the Memorious - about a man who remembers everything, who can’t forget anything. It’s a bit of an inversion of that."
Jonathans short story, titled "Memento Mori," is radically different from Christophers film, although it maintains the same essential elements. In Jonathans 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 ability to create new long-term memories. 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 wifes killer. Unlike the film, there is no ambiguity that Earl finds and kills the anonymous man.
In July 1997, Christopher Nolans girlfriend later wife 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.
3.2. Production Casting
Brad Pitt was initially slated to play Leonard. Pitt was interested in the part, but passed due to scheduling conflicts. Other considered actors included Aaron Eckhart who would later work with Nolan on The Dark Knight 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, 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 wasnt on the page". For the corrupt police officer Teddy, "comedian Denis Leary was mentioned, though proved unavailable". 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 actors subtlety in his performance.
The rest of the films 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.
3.3. Production Filming
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 on the first day, shooting exterior sequences outside Natalies house. All of Moss scenes were completed in the first week, including follow-up scenes at Natalies home, Ferdys 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 said. "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, Pearces 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 Travel Inn in Tujunga, California, was repainted and used as the interior of Leonards and Dodds motel rooms and the exterior of the films Discount Inn. Scenes in Sammy Jankis house were shot in a suburban home close to Pasadena, while Natalies 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 wifes possessions was filmed on the other side of the refinery.
3.4. Production Music
David Julyan composed the films synthesized score. Julyan acknowledges several synthesized soundtracks that inspired him, such as Vangeliss Blade Runner and Hans Zimmers 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 "Leonards 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 dont know what it is you have lost, a sense of being adrift." Initially, Nolan wanted to use Radioheads "Paranoid Android" during the end credits, but he was unable to secure the rights. Instead, David Bowies "Something in the Air" is used, although another of Radioheads songs, an extended version of "Treefingers", is included on the films 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 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 Nolans 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 films 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.
4.1. Release Marketing
Jonathan Nolan designed the films official website. As with the marketing strategy of The Blair Witch Project, the website was intended to provide further clues and hints to introduce the story, while not providing any concrete information. After a short intro on the website, the viewer is shown a newspaper clipping detailing Leonards murder of Teddy. Clicking on highlighted words in the article leads to more material describing the film, including Leonards 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 films 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.
4.2. Release Home media
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 packaged to look like Leonards 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. Leonards "notes" on the DVD case offer clues to navigating the DVD. Some of the "materials" seem designed to induce paranoia and uncertainty a picture of one person whispering to another is captioned, "They know what you did", alluding to Shelbys mental state.
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 Leonards body and are more straightforward than the US 2-disc limited edition DVD.
Memento was released on Blu-ray 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 February 22, 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 films legacy.
5.1. Reception Box office
Memento was a box office success. In the United States, 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 over $25 million in North America and $14 million in other countries, making the films 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.
5.2. Reception Critical response
Memento was met with critical acclaim. On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film received an approval rating of 92% based on 169 reviews, with an average rating of 8.2/10. The sites critical consensus reads, "Christopher Nolan skillfully guides the audience through Memento s fractured narrative, seeping his film in existential dread." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 80 out of 100 based on 34 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
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 says at the end and yet why? I think its because people have spent the entire film looking at Leonards photograph of Teddy, with the caption: "Dont believe his lies." That image really stays in peoples heads, and they still prefer to trust that image even after we make it very clear that Leonards visual recollection is completely questionable. It was quite surprising, and it wasnt planned. What was always planned was that we dont ever step completely outside Leonards head, and that we keep the audience in that interpretive mode of trying to analyze what they want to believe or not. For me, the crux of the movie is that the one guy who might actually be the authority on the truth of what happened is played by Joe Pantoliano. who is so untrustworthy, especially given the baggage he carries in from his other movies: hes already seen by audiences as this character actor whos always unreliable. I find it very frightening, really, the level of uncertainty and malevolence Joe brings to the film.
5.3. Reception Awards and accolades
Because Jonathan Nolans short story was not published before the film was released, it was nominated for Original Screenplay instead of Adapted Screenplay and both Christopher and Jonathan received a nomination.
AMBI Pictures announced in November 2015 that it plans to remake Memento, one of several film rights that AMBI acquired from its acquisition of Exclusive Media. Monika Bacardi, an executive for AMBI Pictures, stated that they plan to "stay true to Christopher Nolans vision and deliver a memorable movie that is every bit as edgy, iconic and award-worthy as the original".