A year after the Wachowski’s introduced us to The Matrix, future directorial star Christopher Nolan gave us an equally stunning film that explored the twin themes of reality and identity: Memento. A friend and I analysed Memento in-depth a few years ago and came to realise that the two films are interconnected. In The Matrix, Morpheus informs Neo that his doubts about the ‘reality’ of his world are “Like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad”. He presents Neo with a choice between red and blue pills. In The Matrix we’re shown what happens when Neo chooses the red pill, whereas in Nolan’s Memento we’re shown what happens when the other side of the probability waveform collapses. In other words, the world of Memento is a parallel reality, the reality Neo finds himself in after choosing the blue pill, a world in which (to paraphrase Morpheus) Neo ‘wakes up in bed and believes whatever he wants to believe’.
The film’s central character is Leonard (Leo), played by Australian actor Guy Pearce. Leo suffers from anterograde amnesia after being struck on the head during ‘the incident’: a botched robbery by heroin addicts, which resulted in his wife’s rape and murder. Although Leo shot and killed one of the perpetrators, police did not believe his account that a second intruder was present. Convinced that his wife’s murderer is still at large, Leo is on a mission to find and kill ‘The One’ responsible for taking her away and destroying his ability to make new memories. Due to his memory problems, Leo can only keep track of the ‘facts’ by tattooing them on his own body and trusting his ‘instinct’. This leaves him vulnerable to manipulation by various predatory characters who use Leo for their own ends. The characters in question are ‘Teddy’ and ‘Natalie’ played by Jo Pantoliano and Carrie Ann-Moss, who also appear in The Matrix as Cypher and Trinity respectively.
The events in Memento are told in reverse chronological order, so the beginning is the end and vice versa. By starting at the beginning (which shows Leo killing Teddy) and working backwards, Nolan allows us to see how Leo’s distortions of the truth play out as an endless sequence of self-pity and self-deception as he searches for ‘The One’. In fact, the film goes much, much deeper than this and shows us that Leo has locked himself in an endless closed loop in which he searches for, and kills, ‘The One’ over and over again. The ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ of this are fairly complex, so I’ll endeavour to keep the explanation as simple as possible.
To help others understand his ‘condition’ Leo tells the story of Sammy Jankis, a former accountant suffering from the same affliction. As a former insurance investigator, Leo was assigned to investigate Sammy’s case to determine whether he was faking it. Ultimately, Leo dismisses Sammy’s condition as mental rather than physical and the insurance company refuses to pay out. Sammy’s distraught wife – a diabetic – designs the ultimate test in an attempt to get Sammy to ‘snap out of it’: she asks him to give her repeat doses of insulin at set intervals. As Sammy is unable to remember administering the first dose, he gives her a second, then a third. His wife slips into a coma and dies, Sammy is confined to a mental institution. The point here is that Leo’s memory of Sammy is false. At one point we’re shown an image of Sammy in hospital, and just before the scene cuts away we see Leo sitting in Sammy’s place.
Leo’s memories of his wife’s death and his quest to find ‘The One’ are fictitious. Teddy tells Leo the truth shortly after Leo kills Natalie’s boyfriend, Jimmy, in the belief that he is ‘The One’. The truth is that Leo’s wife survived ‘the incident’ and was subsequently killed by Leo in the same way ‘Sammy’ killed ‘his’ wife. Sammy was a ‘faker’, whereas Leo’s own ‘condition’ is not physical but mental – he is ‘out of his mind’, physically capable of making new memories but psychologically unable or unwilling to do so. Teddy (a corrupt police officer) has been taking advantage of this by manipulating Leo to kill drug dealers such as Jimmy. He shows Leo a picture of himself taken shortly after a previous killing of ‘The One’. Unable to accept the truth, Leo destroys the evidence Teddy gives him and writes down Teddy’s car licence plate as a ‘fact’ that will later lead him to identify and kill Teddy as ‘The One’ responsible for his wife’s death.
The point is this: Leo is ‘The One’ just as ‘Neo’ is ‘The One’ in The Matrix. But Memento is The Matrix upside-down and ‘through the looking glass’. Shortly before Neo exits the Matrix for the first time, Cypher refers to The Wizard of Oz and says “Buckle your seatbelt Dorothy ’cause Kansas is going bye-bye”. In Memento, the reverse scenario plays out: when Leo kills ‘The One’ his world changes from black-and-white to colour, just as Dorothy’s world goes technicolor when she arrives in Oz. Leo goes ‘over the rainbow’ and wakes up to find himself in bed in ‘some anonymous hotel room’ trying to figure out who the hell he is and what he’s doing there. Leo has left the ‘real world’ and re-entered the Matrix. As Teddy says: “You’re living in a dream world kid”.
Further evidence that Leo is cycling through the same events in a fictitious ‘reality’ appears in the film’s numerous overlap shots. As one main sequence ends the next sequence begins with a repeat of the previous sequence’s ending. These short sequences ought to be identical but contain subtle differences. Leo parks his car in a slightly different location, the position of dollar bills counted by Burt the motel clerk changes, Leo wakes up on his left side, then wakes up on his right side, and so on. Through them we learn that each sequence is taken from a different iteration of the loop: Leo is repeating the same events over and over again.
Each killing of ‘The One’ ends with Leo being informed of the reality of his situation, a reality he rejects. He then goes ‘over the rainbow’ to Oz and wakes up in bed, willing to believe ‘whatever he wants to believe’ and covered in ‘freaky tattoos’ – his own memento mori. The illusion is so strong that even Natalie’s kiss (in The Matrix he is brought back from the dead by Trinity’s kiss) fails to shatter it. Natalie wants Leo to ‘remember me’, she repeatedly asks “You don’t remember me?” – but Leo’s response is always negative.
Throughout the film Leo seems desperate to believe the ‘reality’ of his dream world: he is obsessed with so-called ‘facts’, he bangs on tables to demonstrate the ‘reality’ of his world, he says the world doesn’t just go away when we close our eyes. The end/beginning of the film has Teddy/Cypher imploring Leo/Neo to “help me find my keys”. Lenny ignores him, drives away and engages in a philosophical monologue with himself as he struggle to reconcile himself to the world he sees around him. His conclusion: “We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different”.
Here in the so-called ‘real world’, the anniversary of 911 and has just come and gone, bringing its own set of bizarre mirrors and synchronicities.
On the Eve (as in Adam and Eve – “would you Adam and Eve it?” is Cockney rhyming slang for “Would you believe it?”) of the anniversary a double rainbow appears over Manhattan, seeming to start at the site of the Freedom Tower erected on the ashes of the Twin Towers. According to the bible, the rainbow is God’s own memento – it signifies His promise never to repeat the events of Noah and The Flood.
And on the anniversary of 911 itself, a crane linked to the Bin Laden business empire is struck by lightning (think Zeus) during a freak storm and crashes into Mecca’s Grand Mosque, one of Islam’s most holy sites, killing over a hundred people.
The individual who took the ‘rainbow over Manhattan’ picture just happens to be CEO of a company named “The Leverage Agency”!
On the same day the world remembers the events of 911, when planes attacked the twin icons of the capitalist system and its relentless pursuit of profit, a disaster occurs in the holy city of Mecca, the spiritual home of a faith created by the Prophet Mohammed. One attacks the Profit, the other attacks the Prophet.
Coincidentally – if you believe in coincidence – on the very same day a story emerged about the discovery of a new species of dinosaur dubbed the ‘Lightning Claw’, so-called because its claw resembles a grappling hook. The fossilised remains were discovered ‘over the rainbow’ at Lightning Ridge in Australia (Oz).
Moreover, at the beginning of last month a private plane owned by the Bin Ladens and carrying three members of the Bin Laden family crashed at Blackbushe airport in the UK, killing all on board.
Doesn’t this bizarre sequence of events stretch the boundaries of credibility? What exactly is this construct called ‘reality’ that we so readily take for granted? Does it exist in quite the way we think it does? When we open our eyes is it ‘reality’ that we see? Or it just our collective self reflected back at us, flipped around, turned back-to-front, and repeating endlessly?
A few years ago, we thought we killed ‘The One’.
But it doesn’t seem to have made any difference, because we’re still killing ‘The One’.
And even this hasn’t made any difference, because we’re still trying to hunt down and kill ‘The One’.
EXCLUSIVE: ‘There’s drones in the air!’ How paranoid Jihadi John lives in fear of death from above – as revealed by two men who had a terrifying car ride with ISIS knifeman
Do you buy this? Any of it?
Does any of this still look and feel ‘real’ to you?
Have you ever had a dream that you were so sure was real?
Or do you still need a mirror to remind yourself who you are?
Are we – collectively and literally – out of our mind?