‘Memento’ explained: making sense of Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending mystery

Just watched it on Netflix? Let's unscramble your head...

We should really be starting at the end. Christopher Nolan’s tricksy thriller broke the mould when it came out in 2000 – confounding audiences by running its story in reverse. If that wasn’t enough, the film was about a guy trying to solve a murder while suffering from anterograde amnesia (aka short-term memory loss), making the whole thing feel like a film noir about a goldfish.

Nolan once tried to explain it all on a blackboard, ending up with a diagram that somehow made it even more confusing. If you’ve just watched Memento (currently on Netflix UK) and your head still hurts, read on as we unpick the film’s biggest knots, from back to front (and back again…)

Why is everything backwards?

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Because Christopher Nolan made it. This is the guy who went on to make a movie inside out (Inception) and in two different directions at once (Tenet). Memento actually follows a similar structure to Tenet – starting at the end of the second act, running backwards to the beginning of the story, and then meeting up with the middle again for the big finale.

If it sounds confusing, it’s meant to be. Getting inside the mind of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), the film throws us into the same state of disorientation that he feels every time he glitches back to not knowing what the hell is going on.

Fun fact: a hidden feature on the film’s special edition DVD lets you watch the film recut in chronological order. But where’s the fun in that?

What’s with the black and white bits?

Although Memento will always be known as “the backwards film”, only part of the story runs in the wrong direction. All the scenes shot in colour are flashbacks (remembered back to front), while the black and white footage runs chronologically, the old-fashioned way.

The turning point comes when Shelby kills Jimmy and takes a photo of the body – with the Polaroid slowly changing from black and white to colour as it develops. In Nolan’s mad blackboard scribble, this is the point where everything finally starts running in the same direction.

Memento
‘Memento’ was first released in cinemas 22 years ago. CREDIT: Alamy

Why does Shelby write all over his body?

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Partly because it helped sell the film by having a shirtless Guy Pearce on all the posters (dye-job blonde boys were all the rage back in 2000, blame Sum 41 and NSYNC…) But it also makes a lot of sense. Shelby constantly forgets everything, so he has to write it all down. The Polaroids help with faces, but tattoos are essential for the really important details that are likely to get lost or washed off.

The confusion starts when Shelby starts getting passed the wrong information, trusting the wrong people and even lying to himself – as the film’s finale reveals.

What did Teddy and Natalie have to do with it all?

We know Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) isn’t all that he seems (“don’t trust his lies”), but we only find out late in the game that he’s actually a corrupt cop who’s been using Shelby to do his dirty work. Shelby thinks Teddy is his friend, but all Teddy cares about is money – taking advantage of his memory loss to trick him into going after random scumbags that he wants to rip off.

Random scumbags like Jimmy (Larry Holden). The most he has to do with anything is introducing his girlfriend, Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), into the story. With Jimmy dead, his old associates come looking for Natalie to pay off his debts – before she steals Teddy’s idea of tricking Shelby into taking out her enemies. Shelby knows he’s being used, but Natalie steals all his permanent pens before he can write it all down to remind himself.

Carrie-Ann Moss
Carrie-Ann Moss in ‘Memento’. CREDIT: Alamy

So who’s the killer?

We never find out. “There’s no conspiracy,” says Teddy. “It was just dumb fucking luck.” The whole revenge plot was a ruse set up by Teddy to get Shelby to target other people. It was (probably) him on the phone the whole time, masterminding everything – right up until the point Teddy tricks himself into killing him.

Shelby gets his revenge by writing false clues for his future forgetful self to find – knowing that his trail of notes will convince himself into believing Teddy is the man who murdered his wife. And he’s right, since the film opens (or closes?) with Shelby killing Teddy.

But what about Sammy?

Remember that other guy who had anterograde amnesia? Sammy (Stephen Tobolowsky) isn’t just there to make everything even more confusing. What starts off as a side-story from Shelby’s old insurance days gets tangled up in the main plot at the end as we find out half of the film’s “flashbacks” maybe aren’t as real as they look.

Did Sammy accidentally kill his wife, or was it Shelby all along? Did Sammy ever exist at all? The last riddle of Memento is deliberately left unsolved. And that’s the perfect place to start.

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