Maybe 30 or so minutes in Memento, the manager of the hotel where Lenny is staying reveals that he’s been taking advantage of his Lenny’s (played by Guy Pearce) short term memory loss and has been charging him for two rooms instead of one. Lenny doesn’t seem too rattled by this, he’s got more important things on his mind. But the manager drops a helpful note to Lenny: always get a receipt.
Lenny, for the most part, deals with hand-written notes throughout the length of the movie, some of them scribbled onto the backs of faded photographs, others self-inflicted through tattoos. It’s a foolproof way in Lenny’s mind to be one step ahead of his short term memory loss, his system of habits and checks that keep him afloat and functioning in the real world instead of cooped up in some mental institution. But as we find out, even receipts can be doctored, and that even our strongest, most truthful memories still have a way of fooling us.
Memento isn’t Christopher Nolan’s first directorial feature, but it is the first notable work of his showing his true promise as one of Hollywood’s most inventive storytellers. The film is told in two alternating chunks: a black and white section that proceeds chronologically, and a color section that proceeds in reverse. It’s a bit of a disorienting effect and we must constantly question what we just witnessed or what were the events that immediately proceeded what we just saw. In this sense, Nolan cleverly makes us experience our own version of amnesia, constantly forgetting where we are in the story or where it is going.
But there are some truths to Memento that keep us afloat in its unconventional storytelling process. We accept that Lenny’s wife has been murdered and that he is working to avenge her, that he used to be an insurance claims investigator and once worked with a man named Sammy Jenkins who had the same condition he did, and that there are two individuals who are supposedly helping him on his quest: Teddy (played by Joe Pantoliano) and Natalie (played by Carrie-Anne Moss). As we proceed through the film, we question all of these motives are find ourselves asking what necessarily is true, if anything.
It really is a wonderful piece of filmmaking that makes us question the nature of memory and truth, how we hold such deep emotional connections to former events in our head that ultimately unreliable. Memento is also particularly relevant in today’s age of gaslighting and Fake News, where nothing can be fully believed, even when it is presented as 100 percent certified fact.
We watch the film pitying Lenny and his condition, taking solace in the fact that we can remember what we had for breakfast or who we hung out with last week or who we were dating last year. But Nolan shows us we are all just like Lenny, that the thoughts and the feelings running through our heads cannot be fully trusted, despite how desperately we want them to be.