Leonard Shelby (Memento)

Created by Jonathan Nolan
Adapted for the screen by Christopher Nolan

”I can’t make new memories.”

Seen Memento yet? It’s a truly mind-blowing film that should get as much exposure as possible.

The main character, LEONARD SHELBY, is (or at least was) a P.I. (well, actually, an insurance investigator). But I think this qualifies him for inclusion on this site, even though the “investigation” he is involved in throughout the film is a personal vendetta–a private investigation, if you will.

Guy Pearce plays the former San Francisco/Bay Area insurance dick, searching for his wife’s killer. Unfortunately, Shelby (who sustained a serious head injury during the fatal attack on his wife) suffers from anterograde amnesia, a rare form of amnesia which renders him incapable of retaining memories. Any bit of information he learns since his injury must be recorded or will be quickly forgotten.

As a result,  he must use an elaborate system of  notes, photographs and even tatoos to keep everything straight. As you can imagine, this makes his “investigation” so much more difficult.

Along the way, he meets Teddy and Natalie (played by Joe Pantliano and Carrie Anne-Moss) two mysterious but seemingly helpful people who may–or may not–be as helpful to Shelby as they appear.

The plot itself sounds like a decent low-budget mystery. But what makes this movie stand out is the construction of the screenplay.

Not to give too much away, but writer-director Christopher Nolan, who would later helm to similarly chronologically elastic Inception and Tenet) tells the story in reverse chronological order: the ending of the film is shown at the begining and it unravels backwards from there. As a result, the audience is just as confused and uneasy about what is going on as Shelby is. You only find out the whole story of how he ended up in the mess he was in during the last few minutes, and even then you aren’t sure what you just saw were the objective facts or a fractured approximation cooked up in Shelby’s mind. I’ve seen this movie twice and my brain still aches when I try to figure it all out.

Some critics dismissed this film as gimmicky. But if so, it’s one hell of a gimmick. Like Sleuth, Memento is a  strange puzzle of a film that requires real thought to even get a glimmering of what just happened.

EDITOR’S NOTE

  • Christopher Nolan’s dazzling, creative screenplay was actually based on a short story, “Memento Mori” by his brother Jonathan “Nathan” Nolan. In the story, Earl (Leonard in the film), whose occupation is never specified, is the one suffering from short-term memory loss, as he attempts to track down his wife’s killer. It’s a mind-twisting little number itself: a rare combo of first and second person narration, as Earl talks to himself.

THE EVIDENCE

  • “She’s gone, gone for good, and you must be hurting right now, hearing the news. Believe me, I know how you feel.”
    — “Memento Mori” by Jonathan Nolan

FILMS

  • MEMENTO | Buy the video Buy the DVD Buy the Blu-Ray Watch it now!
    (2000, I Remember Productions/Newmarket Capital Group/Team Todd)
    116 minutes
    Colour/Black and white
    Tagline: Some memories are best forgotten
    Based on the short story “Memento Mori” by Jonathan Nolan
    Screenplay by Christopher Nolan
    Directed by Christopher Nolan
    Executive producers: Christopher Ball, Aaron Ryder, William Tyrer
    Co-producer: Elaine Dysinger
    Associate producer: Emma Thomas
    Producers: Jennifer Todd, Suzanne Todd
    Original music by David Julyan
    Starring Guy Pearce as LEONARD SHELBY
    Also starring Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Stephen Tobolowsky, Jorja Fox, Harriet Sansom Harris, Callum Keith Rennie, Larry Holden, Jimmy Grantz , Russ Fega, Thomas Lennon, Kimberly Campbell, Marianne Muellerleile

SHORT STORIES

  • “Memento Mori” (March 2001, Esquire, by Jonathan Nolan) | Read it now!

FURTHER INVESTIGATION

  • Comfort In The Uncomfortable
    Nick Kolakowski on how Christopher Nolan uses noir to get weird (March 2021, CrimeReads)
  • Respectfully submitted by Bryan English.

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