For people who have not seen the movie yet, I strongly advise you to stop reading this post and go watch it. This will contain spoilers. You should avoid reading too much about the movie, although it will help to know that it is played backwards. Scene for scene, each clip takes place immediately before the last one that was played. Some scenes are in black and white. Those are separate, but I'll have to talk about them after the spoilers.
SPOILERS AHEAD AFTER THIS LINE.
First, some general comments about the message of the movie and why I think it is so great. I already posted some of my remarks in an earlier comment thread to Dan, but I think they're worth repeating here.
If you insist on reading the spoilers, here's a quick synopsis. Lenny is a former insurance investigator who has a rare memory conditions that has left him unable to form new memories. Every so often -- somewhere between ten minutes and a few hours -- he forgets what happened recently. Thus, he is unable to remember names or faces, and the only way he can keep track of what's happened lately is to write things down and take pictures.
Lenny's last clear memory is that of his wife being killed, and his life's mission is to investigate and avenge her death. He writes important clues permanently as tattoos on his body. One other vivid memory that he keeps is the story of Sammy Jankis, a man who had the same condition as his own. Lenny investigated Sammy's case and thus knows all about his own situation based on prior knowledge.
In a nutshell, "Knowledge" is really the central theme of the movie. We think we know things because we remember them, but memory is unreliable. We think we can piece together an overall story from past events and familiar objects, but many of them are still subjective and can lie to us. Lenny gives an important monologue early makes an important speech early in the movie:
Early in Memento, Lenny's character gives an important speech about memory:
"Memory's not perfect. It's not even that good. Ask the police, eyewitness testimony is unreliable. The cops don't catch a killer by sitting around remembering stuff. They collect facts, make notes, draw conclusions. Facts, not memories: that's how you investigate. I know, it's what I used to do. Memory can change the shape of a room or the color of a car. It's an interpretation, not a record. Memories can be changed or distorted and they're irrelevant if you have the facts."
Despite his own condition, and despite his cynicism about memory as a guide to the past, Lenny unshakably believes that there are three things he can trust:
- His memories of the night his wife died
- His memories of Sammy Jankis
- His own notes and tattoos
The end of the movie simply yanks the rug out from under these beliefs, not once, but for all three beliefs. They lead you down this trail, thinking that when you dig far enough back into the past, you'll find the answers to everything else. Instead, you get to the "end" of the movie (really the beginning, in a way) and they hit you with new revelations, wham wham wham, so fast you're left without anything to hold onto in your previous understanding of what really happened.
First you find out that his wife's attacker was already caught, so his entire quest to avenge her since then has been pointless.
Then you find out that he got the story of Sammy all wrong, that many of the events were about him, and that he may have actually killed his own wife.
THEN you find out that he lied to himself in his own notes. On purpose.
One message you could take from the movie is, "No amount of evidence is sufficient to accept a claim." That's not what I got from it, though. Rather, that people's interpretations of events are rarely reliable, and therefore relying on direct experience is a trap. The character of Lenny is not stupid and he's not entirely malicious; he's just going with events as they happen to him and trying to make sense of an array of personal experiences which are even more jumbled than most people's.
Now some specific questions from Tracie. She asked:
Sometimes it seemed like he was claiming that whenever he awoke he had no recollection of his wife's murder--that he thought she was still alive and well; but most of the time he expressed that he retained the memory of her murder. Did they ever explain his alteranating recollection of that memory? It seemed like _sometimes_ he forgot she died--but it seemed to be a pretty consistent "sometimes." Like I said I have to watch it again, but I thought he said he always woke up without the recollection of the murder--but he also said her death was the "last thing" he remembered (which I interpreted to mean it was part of his permanent recollection and not something he needed to remind himself about...?
The only guess I had, but I felt it was pretty flimsy, was that maybe since he had a warped concept of time, it was as if the event had only just occurred, and therefore, when he awoke, it was so "new" that it hadn't sunk in yet that she was gone? While I have had similar experiences, I have to say that in my experiences they're _much_ more fleeting than the film implied (and I can't stress that enough)--if this is what they were driving at. I might wake up _not_ recollecting bad news for like a few moments--but then it hits before I can even sit up in bed. I certainly can't imagine I'd get up and expend too much energy walking around looking for my husband, and expecting him to be in the bathroom, if I'd just seen him murdered "the night before." I think I would wake up initially oblivious and possibly happy thinking he was still alive, but it would hit me (and I don't think I'm unique in this regard) pretty quickly after I became conscious that he had been murdered.
Actually, according to one interpretation, his wife wasn't really dead when he found her. Teddy says as much at the end. As you point out in the next comment, Teddy isn't a reliable source himself, but in this case I think his claims might be plausible. Lenny's memory of Sammy is a false projection of events that really happened to Lenny. Teddy's version is that Lenny's wife survived the attack, but the trauma of seeing the rape still caused the memory condition. It was Lenny's wife who had diabetes, and it was Lenny who killed his own wife through an insulin overdose.
Although Lenny can't form new memories, there are hints that he can drill "facts" into his head through repetition. This might explain how he somehow managed to remember the real death of his wife and project it onto Sammy Jankis.
Then again, temporarily forgetting that his wife is dead may just be a product of the shock and not related to his condition at all.
2. So, who was Teddy? Was he a cop, a snitch? Was his motive actually to go around looking for people with JG initials to let Lenny randomly kill so Lenny could feel better again and again? That's a bit odd. I wasn't sure what to believe about Teddy or whether he was reliable--or was that the point?Was Teddy supposed to confuse the issue? He lied enough and expressed such odd, unbelievable motives, that he was not a trustworthy character (I thought?). However, Lenny's reasons for not trusting him were, of course, contrived. But still, as the audience, I saw Teddy contradict himself (although we were shown that he did sometimes tell the truth), and I don't know who he really is, except that he seems to have more mental issues than Lenny.
I agree with you that Teddy is just about the least reliable character in the movie (although he has some tough competition!) but in the end I'm inclined to believe his version of events. It may be just because Teddy got the last word and tied up a lot of the other threads. He lies all the time, but it seems like in this case he may have been telling the painful truth just to get back at Lenny.
No, I don't think he was letting Lenny kill random people just to feel good. I think he really was a crooked cop, and he enjoyed the power of being able to go after small time crooks without hassling with court proceedings. The fact that killing crooks made Lenny happy was merely an added bonus, on top of the fact that Teddy got to keep his hands clean.
Also, in this case it's obvious that Lenny wanted to steal Jimmy's drug money. Throughout the movie, Lenny is really driving Jimmy's car and wearing his clothes, and Teddy keeps trying to get the car because there's money in the trunk.
3. Was Lenny's wife diabetic or were we supposed to be left wondering? If we can't be sure, this calls into question Lenny's entire story except what the police report validated. His notes were certainly unreliable. In addition to his conscious motviation to make Gambel the killer--even though he wasn't--he trusted Natalie, who was totally unreliable. So, the assessment he recorded, that she would help him, was very wrong and based on bad data--since he was unaware he'd killed her boyfriend.
I do think we are supposed to be left wondering, but I also seem to recall an interview with Chris Nolan (the director) saying "there is definitely a correct answer."
Again, my best guess is that Teddy was telling the truth about Lenny's wife, and about Sammy being a con man.
I want to wrap up with a few words about the black and white scenes, since those are a little hard to decipher. Unlike the color scenes, the black and white scenes play in forward order. Chronologically, they come before the rest of the movie. So if you want to piece the whole movie together in the correct order, start with the first black and white scene, and when you come to a color scene, skip it. Keep going forward until you get to the last BW scene in the movie.
When Lenny kills Jimmy Grantz, he takes a polaroid and then shakes it until it develops. As it does, the whole movie slowly fades into color. Watch the rest of the scene in color, then go backward to the next color scene before that, and so on.
Finally, the best explanation I ever saw for how everything worked was in this article at Salon. Hope it is helpful.