‘Memento’: Understanding Christopher Nolan’s Very First “Time Inversion”

     July 14, 2020


“I have to believe my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world is still there.”

– Leonard Shelby, “Memento”

Memento begins with an ending. We watch enigmatic amnesiac Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) murder John “Teddy” Gammell (Joe Pantoliano) and then time runs in reverse, even before the story does. A Polaroid slides back into a camera, a discarded gun returns to Leonard’s hand, and a bullet flies back into the chamber. This not only kicks off a told-in-reverse mystery-thriller but also Christopher Nolan‘s on-going obsession with the various ways we move through and fight against time. Whether he’s pulling magic tricks, delving into dreams, or traversing the cosmos, Nolan’s interests almost always circle back to characters not only reckoning with their pasts but actively trying to change them. With the filmmaker’s most explicit example of this idea, Tenet—which literally sends John David Washington backward through time—heading to theaters (eventually!), it’s interesting to look back at Memento, his very first “time inversion” if only to see how Nolan has evolved—and stayed fascinatingly consistent—as a storyteller after all this…time.


Image via Newmarket Films

Memento moves in reverse to mimic the strange affliction of its main character. A home break-in left Leonard’s wife dead and him with severe brain damage, a form of short-term memory loss in which he can’t create new memories. A complex system of Polaroids, scribbled notes, and tattoos are the only things that keep him on a quest for revenge against his wife’s murderer, who he only knows as “John G”. In telling the story backward from the moment Leonard kills Teddy—which is initially framed as the revenge Leonard has been searching for—Nolan puts us in the protagonist’s shoes. We’re waking up in each scene with no context, seeing end results without the lead-up, answers to questions we never got in the first place.

As the story ravels itself back together, we learn that almost everything Leonard’s been told is a lie, highlighting the dangers of trusting anyone when every person you meet is a stranger. Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), the bartender who runs the license plate number that eventually convinced Leonard that Teddy is the John G., does so only after manipulating Leonard into driving a rival drug dealer, Dodd (Callum Keith Rennie) out of town. It’s a cold, calculated deception that mirrors the larger one being carried out by Teddy. For a year, Teddy—an undercover cop—has basically used Leonard as his own personal hitman, directing him toward countless “John G’s” and then starting the process all over again. In reality, these men had nothing to do with the death of Leonard’s wife; Teddy is just using Leonard to bust up drug deals and skimming a little money from the transaction for himself.


Image via Newmarket

Leonard discovers Teddy’s duplicity after murdering one last John G.—Jimmy Grants (Larry Holden), Natalie’s boyfriend—who mentions the name “Sammy”. One of Leonard’s first tattoos reads “remember Sammy Jankis”, a man with a similar memory impairment. If Jimmy Grants knows about Sammy, that means he’s met Leonard before, which means nothing about this interaction is as Leonard understands. Teddy arrives and tells the truth to a confused Leonard, but it doesn’t matter. He won’t remember it. “There’s plenty of John G’s for us to find,” he tells Leonard. 

But he most important lie in Memento is the one Leonard tells himself. The film ends with Leonard arriving at a tattoo shop to ink Teddy’s license plate number on to himself, setting himself on a course that ends with the murder scene that opens the film. Present-Leonard is setting up future-Leonard to enact revenge he won’t even understand. But isn’t that the empty promise of all revenge, a brief moment of fulfillment that won’t change your reality? Revenge is, in the end, an act of lying to yourself. “Do I lie to myself to be happy?” Leonard asks. “In your case, Teddy, yes I will.”

What Nolan’s saying here is that you can change the meaning of an ending but the beginning, the source of that anger or pain or resentment, stays the same. And then he went on to make a handful of movies about men fighting against that same idea. In Inception, Dominick Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is haunted by the projection of his wife, Mallorie (Marion Cotillard), who exists only as a dream-manifestation of the guilt he feels over his culpability in her death. In Interstellar, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) travels through a black hole and into a four-dimensional representation of an advanced five-dimensional state of existence to send a message to his daughter in the past. Even Bruce Wayne (Christan Bale), suiting up as Batman across all three movies in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, devotes himself entirely to a mission that spawns from a single, tragic moment in an alleyway when he was just a boy. These are immutable moments in time that Nolan’s characters would move Heaven and Earth to alter.

The twisty-turny time fuckery of Tenet has mostly been drawing comparisons to Inception and Interstellar but it mostly feels like the natural thematic endpoint of ideas first raised in Tenet. After debuting with Following, Nolan really emerged with a story told backward, an illustration of the way one moment in time can have consequences we might not even understand, consequences we can’t change. Twenty years later, with Tenet, Nolan decided to stop mucking about and just ask: Well, what happens if we could?

“This reversing the flow of time…doesn’t us being here now mean it never happened?”

– The Protagonist, “Tenet”

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