Memento–Remembrance of Things Past

Wesley Saunders, Guest Blogger

[Professional basketball player for Kataja Basket of Finland, Harvard ’15. Stop by his  Instagram: @saunders.wesley and watch his  Youtube at]

Memento movie

Memento (2000), a psychological thriller, is one of director Christopher Nolan’s earliest films, incorporating a couple of Nolan’s signature styles of film making– most notably a dual-plot line and non-linear narrative. Memento follows two distinct story lines, both narrated by the main character, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce). After a head injury sustained during a burglary in which his wife was raped and murdered, Shelby is no longer able to create new memories, only remembering events that occurred before the tragedy. Shelby is haunted by the memory of his wife and her final moments and takes it upon himself to solve his wife’s murder.   His mission: to exact revenge on the person who murdered her and left him with amnesia.

From the onset of Memento Nolan draws us into the first storyline (filmed in color), driven by revenge. In the first scene Shelby exacts revenge and from there, we are shown in reverse chronological order, not only the events that led up to his wife’s brutal murder but also his attempt to reconstruct the past he no longer remembers.

The second narrative is the story of Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky) presented in chronological order and filmed in multiple black-and-white flashbacks. These flashbacks pre-date Shelby’s amnesia, taking us back to Shelby’s time as an insurance agent. During this time, Shelby was assigned a case in which Sammy Jankis suffers from the same type of short-term memory loss. Shelby uses Sammy as a way to understand his condition as well as a guide for what to beware of.

While both of these story lines are presented to us simultaneously, Nolan adds his next cinematic device. Similar to some of his later films — Batman Begins: The Dark Knight and The Prestige,– in Memento Nolan cuts, edits, and merges scenes, skewing the viewer’s perspective of time as well as memory. Some scenes are repeated multiple times, truncated only to be finished later on. All of this contributes to the mystique and the mystery of Memento, while also forcing the viewer to pay attention to minute details within each scene that may not have been previously noticed. This style of film making puts the viewer in the shoes of Shelby.

In some instances, the viewer shares Shelby’s confusion– not sure of what has already occurred, or what information another character may or may not have. We too in some ways experience his amnesia and try to put the pieces of the mystery together along with Shelby. Nolan does a masterful job of placing us in the mind of the main character and of giving us an idea of the inner struggle and frustration he faces. By the end of Memento we are left with some answers but many more questions. We have been on a journey of how memory functions, an involuntary process of discovery and concealing.

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3 Replies to “Memento–Remembrance of Things Past”

  1. Yes, this is one of our (John and myself) favorite films. So complex and revealing about the human spirit and mind.
    Such a fascinating film, that it can be watched multiple times, each time revealing something else. Our son-in-law must have binge watched this film over 3 or 4 days he was so intrigued with the story and this amnesia phenomenon.