Movies like “Dark City” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” have asked the question, where does our identity diverge from our memories and can we have an identity without authentic memory.
“Memento” gives us a story that is as inverted as the mind of its main character, Leonard Shelby, who has lost the ability to retain long term memories. Drifting through a world that is constantly new to him and unable to remember what he has been doing from one minute to the next, Leonard (Guy Pearce) relies on snapshots he takes with a Polaroid camera, notes and memos he writes to himself and on himself and finally tattoos he has inscribed on his own body containing important information to help him find his wife’s attackers. With his own memory severely damaged, Leonard is attempting to create an artificial physical memory composed of these mementos, snapshots, notes and tattoos on his own physical body, to take the place of the memories his mind can no longer create.
At first glance this makes Leonard vulnerable and worse than vulnerable, a patsy for everyone who wants to use him and take advantage of him. From Teddy, a dirty cop, played by the always vivid Joe Pantoliano, to Natalie (Carrie Ann Moss) the girlfriend of a drug dealer Teddy had him murder to the motel desk clerk who repeatedly charges him for the same room, Leonard is exploited over and over again because of his inability to remember.
The one thing Leonard can seem to remember is the attack that supposedly ended in the rape and murder of his wife. Leonard’s sole remaining goal in life is focused on finding and killing those men responsible. But the resulting journey leaves him dependent on other people and on his ability to interpret the notes he has left for himself scattered around his room and on his own body. The notes that he relies on and that are meant to lead him to the real killers.
Leonard exists in a world without memory but not without identity. The artificial memories he creates are themselves created by a man driven to pursue a seemingly hopeless goal, a detective whose ability to follow a trial is impeded by his inability to know the context of the evidence he holds. The clues Leonard gathers lead him in a particular direction, a direction he has to trust because they come from himself. But devoid of a larger context, all Leonard has is those disassociated bits of information pointing him one way or another, leaving him with license plates, hair colors and names.
Some of the information is supplied to him by Teddy and Natalie, both of whom want Leonard to murder people for their own agendas. Teddy arranges the information he passes to Leonard so that Leonard will murder drug dealers and other people Teddy wants out of the way. Natalie arranges the information so that it points to Teddy so that Leonard will kill him in return for arranging the murder of her boyfriend. Both characters appear to direct and control Leonard’s actions, while Leonard himself is helpless, divorced from the minute to minute and day to day information that would allow him to make decisions. Yet the reality is the exact opposite. While Teddy and Natalie both believe they are controlling Leonard’s decisions, they are only managing an outcome that Leonard himself set into motion. “Memento” is a whodunit where the answer appears clear, only to end with the most improbable suspect, Leonard himself.
Memory is a physical aspect of our minds but it is also a psychological one holding buried depths of things we try to escape. The story of Sammy Jankis which Leonard relates to us at the beginning is meant to distinguish between a biological loss of memory due to physical damage to the brain and loss of memory due to psychological factors. Leonard places himself in the former category and Sammy Jankis in the latter, but the reality is that Leonard is Sammy Jankis. His final memory of his wife is not of the attack on her but of injecting her over and over again with doses of insulin, resulting in a deadly overdose.
The killer Leonard is searching for is himself. His search for the killer is an attempt to escape from the reality of his own crime. The murders Leonard carries out are the murders he wishes to carry out in order to continue escaping the burden of his guilt. Leonard is running from himself and the killers he sees are an endless shifting landscape of names and numbers noted and tattooed everywhere, but are only pretexts. Once he has killed a target, Leonard moves on to another, aided by people like Teddy and Natalie, who need a killer and Leonard who needs to kill. Rather than being helpless, Leonard’s constructed artificial memories are the vehicle for maintaining his quest and protecting his real identity, that of the man who accidentally killed his own wife.
Teddy who has supplied him with targets all along and fed his psychological needs, turns on Leonard and tells him the truth of what is going on, believing that Leonard will simply forget it. But Leonard does not really forget anything important. Leonard simply makes Teddy another target. Teddy had been under the illusion that Leonard was a gun that he pointed and fired at others, a weapon with Teddy as the trigger. But Leonard is and was the trigger all along. In the aftermath of his revelations, which consume more time than Leonard can normally retain, suggesting that the psychological loss of memory may itself be self-willed, Leonard becomes a weapon pointed at Teddy.
The Leonard who lives from moment to moment is a broken figure, a man detached from his own life, a puppet for the true Leonard, the overarching identity that has brought himself to this point step by step. Leonard is his own puppet and puppeteer. The fragmented Leonard is a defense for the inner Leonard. It is the only Leonard most see, a gullible easy victim, but the real Leonard emerges in the mementos and notes he leaves for himself. They form the larger identity that stretches across the arc of the broken Leonards and provide him with cohesion. They are the true Leonard peering from behind the curtain.
In the absence of memory, men will create their own memories and protect their own secrets by any means they can.