If you could change your memories, would you? It’s a question asked in some of the great sci-fi films of our time: Dark City, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Matrix, Total Recall are all movies about the compliance of our memories, our ability to shape our recollections into what we want to believe. A better universe, a safer world, a happier life free from heartache.
What’s interesting about Christopher Nolan’s Memento, then, is that Leonard (Guy Pearce) is adjusting his memories to make his reality worse.
And of course, Memento is not a science fiction film. Leonard suffers from a very real, if very rare, condition called anterograde amnesia, in which he’s unable to form new memories after a head trauma assumed during the murder of his wife (Jorja Fox). Leonard fights against this condition with meticulous notes, photographs and tattoos, a highly specific system that keeps him organized and focused despite the fact that if he’s talking to someone for longer than a few minutes, he may forget who it is or why he’s there. See, Leonard has something to live for, a reason to stay focused - unlike poor Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), the subject of an insurance investigation Leonard once led in his previous life. Sammy also suffered from anterograde amnesia, but he wasn’t driven to find his wife’s killer, so he just gave up. In fact, the way Leonard remembers it, Sammy was his own wife’s killer, administering her insulin shot again and again because he couldn’t remember that he’d already given it to her.
Leonard’s aided in the search for his wife’s killer by a man named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), and though Teddy gives Leonard some good advice throughout the course of the film - that he should get out of town, that he can’t trust Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) - Leonard knows better than to listen to him. See, on the back of Teddy’s Polaroid in Leonard’s pocket, Leonard once scribbled the words Don’t believe his lies, and if there’s one thing Leonard knows he can trust, it’s his own handwriting.
Memento is Carrie-Anne Moss’ first big role after The Matrix, and her casting alongside Pantoliano’s should be our first hint that Leonard’s memories are not what they seem. All Leonard wants to do is find his wife’s killer, and he’s willing to suffer anything, to stumble along this tragic, empty life, to see that through. Nobody will stand in the way of that - especially not slickster Teddy, who calls him Lennie even though he knows Leonard hates that, who seems to always be teasing him and testing him and pushing him in a direction Leonard doesn’t want to go.
Of course, Leonard has already found the man who attacked his wife, his “John G”. Teddy, a cop, helped Leonard find the man over a year ago. He may be a scumbag, a dirty cop, but he really wanted to help Leonard, because he thought for sure that once Leonard caught the bad guy, he would remember. “But it didn’t stick…like nothing ever sticks. Like this won’t stick.” And John G wasn’t even her killer, because she survived that attack. That story about Sammy Jankis? That is Leonard’s story. Sammy was an unmarried con artist. Leonard is the man who unwittingly killed his wife by giving her shot after shot of insulin, because he couldn’t remember and she couldn’t stand to continue living with a broken husband.
Is it any wonder Leonard doesn’t want those memories? Sure, it might be nice if he could remember that he’s already achieved his vengeance, but then what else has he to live for, if his wife’s attacker is already dead? And of course he doesn’t want to recall that he killed his wife, his love, that she committed suicide through him and left him to cope with his condition alone.
But here’s the thing: Leonard can obviously form new memories after his head trauma, because the insulin scene happened after his wife’s attack, after his injury. That memory was traumatic enough that it stuck - but he shaped it into something else, made sense out of it by connecting it to a story he recalls from his other life, his better life. Leonard has more control over his memories than we’re led to believe, and that calls into question everything we’ve seen since the film began.
So what does Leonard do with that power? He resents the bare, unpleasant truth revealed to him by Teddy, so he decides to make Teddy - John Edward Gammell - his John G. Before he can lose the thread of his plot, he plans to tattoo Teddy’s license plate number on his arm and he writes the words Don’t believe his lies on Teddy’s photo. Now Leonard has something to live for again. How many times has Leonard been on this mission? How many times has he won vengeance over how many John Gs?
But those aren’t the most interesting questions of Memento. The question that haunts me is why, if Leonard is able to shape that pliable memory of his into anything he wants, why doesn’t he choose to believe that his wife is still alive? To end his recollection seconds before he sees her face down on the bathroom floor? Every few minutes is a fresh start for Leonard, so every few minutes could be a few new minutes that he’s just waiting for his wife to come back from the bathroom, to sit down at his table, to call him from the other room.
The reason is this: Leonard wants vengeance more than he wants his wife. Not just vengeance for his wife, but for himself. After all, John G stole his life, and then his wife gave up on him and saddled him with the cruelest of sins. She abandoned him, so believing that she is still alive isn’t enough for Leonard to keep going. Only this ceaseless quest for reckoning can do that. Only his rage at John G, at Teddy, at his stupid, faulty brain and at the whole damn world can give Leonard the will to continue.
To Leonard, every room is an anonymous room. And he can fill that room with anything he wants. Leonard chooses to furnish his room with hatred instead of love. And he keeps going, fueled by that hatred, and by the dreadful memories he has made for himself.