Mememto is a compelling tale masterfully presented in such a way that the audience gets a genuine taste of what it is like to live with the memory disabilities of the main character. The film follows the life Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a man who suffers from anterograde amnesia – he cannot form new memories. He also suffers from short-term memory loss and goes through a memory ‘reset’ approximately every five minutes. Leonard is on a quest to find one of his wife’s murderers. He has developed a system of tattoos, notes and polaroid photos to act as a virtual memory bank.
The film is comprised of alternating scenes in full color and in monochrome. The black and white scenes run chronologically and the color scenes are shown in reverse order. This reverse order viewing is the brilliant mechanism that allows the audience to experience what it is like to live Leonard’s life. The two sequences converge at the end of the movie – but in what would be the chronological middle of the story – giving the audience a complete narrative picture.
Throughout the black and white sequences Leonard recounts, to an anonymous phone caller, the story of Sammy Jankis, a man who suffers from the same short-term memory loss condition that Leonard has. Leonard uses Sammy’s story, to explain his own condition to people he meets. We are told the tale of Sammy’s battle with the insurance company and how ultimately, Leonard, who was the insurance agent assigned to investigate Sammy’s case, decided that Sammy was faking it. In a bid to prove that her husband was not faking it, Sammy’s diabetic wife, banking on Sammy’s love for her, had Sammy inject her with insulin every time his memory reset itself. He ended up killing her.
In the color sequences, we learn that Leonard is on a quest to kill a ‘John or James G’, one of the two assailants who escaped on the night of his wife’s murder and the injury that led to Leonard’s condition. Leonard meets with a cop, Teddy, who seems to be a friend, and ends up meeting a bartender who manipulates him into taking of her abusive boyfriend problem. Along the way we also see flashbacks to the night of his wife’s murder, all treated from Leonard’s subjective point of view.
In the final scene of the movie, we realize that Teddy was the anonymous phone caller, and has been manipulating Leonard for some time. Teddy accuses Leonard of actually being Sammy Jankis. Leonard is unable to handle the truth, and leaves a note to for his future self that he should kill Teddy, thereby regaining the ability to continue to lie to himself to be happy.