Plot Holes: Memento

(Plot Holes is an occasional feature that points out narrative lapses in the movies. It gives away crucial plot points, so stop reading now if you’re planning to see Memento.)

The plot of Memento— an insurance investigator named Leonard (Guy Pearce) searches for the rapist-murderer of his wife while suffering from a bizarre memory disorder—is so full of twists that one leaves the theater blinking and stupefied. So if Leonard was Sammy, then Sammy … never existed? Or was Teddy lying at the end? Or neither? You either need a) astute friends with whom you can wrangle over the plot at a good coffee shop afterward; b) the as-yet unreleased DVD, which will hopefully allow you to watch the movie in chronological order; or c) to return to the theater and see it all again.

Or you could d) read this column. We’ll try to sort out the plot and its problems. Such as:

IfLeonard has short-term memory loss, how does he remember … ? (Part 1)

Since the injury, Leonard can’t make new memories. He gets by with snapping Polaroids, writing himself notes, and tattooing relevant facts on his body—the most prominent being “John G. raped and murdered my wife.” Now we’ll let go of the fact that Leonard always remembers he has a condition (file it under “Suspension of disbelief,” or see “What is memory anyway?” below for another theory). But how does he know the importance of the thick file on his wife’s rape? Does he read it every morning? If not, how does he remember his disagreement with the cops about the second rapist?

How does Natalie ( Carrie-Ann Moss) always know when Leonard’s memory is about to go blank?

Leonard’s short-term memory seems to last a couple of hours. At one point, for example, he travels to the Discount Inn, checks into a room, calls an escort service, waits patiently for the escort to show up, explains what he wants, then goes to sleep. Yet twice (when she spits in his beer, and when she lies about Dodd) Natalie acts malicious in front of him, goes off humming to herself for less than a minute, then returns knowing he won’t remember her maliciousness. He doesn’t.

Shouldn’tLeonardact more like an insurance investigator and less likePhilipMarlowe?

Every time he wakes up or his post-assault memory goes blank, Leonard should become what he was before the injury: a simple insurance investigator. Yet whether being chased by a gun-toting Dodd or being surprised by Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) in his Jag, Leonard acts like a character out of film noir. He knows how to load and use an automatic. He picks Dodd’s motel room door with a credit card. He tattoos himself in bed with needles and pen ink. Are these talents he picked up in the insurance biz?

Where did the rape-murder of his wife actually take place?

Leonard is from San Francisco, while the film appears to take place in Southern California (Teddy is constantly urging Leonard to go back north). Yet Teddy—according to Teddy, anyway—was the chief investigator of the rape-murder. So did the rape not take place at their home in San Francisco? Were they traveling at the time? If so, it would seem that Leonard’s wife travels with many favorite possessions, including an old teddy bear and an antique clock (we see them in the flashback). Also, for someone in a strange city with short-term memory loss, Leonard is able to get around fairly well. He’s got the big map, sure, and he asks for directions once, but he’s able, for example, to beat Dodd back to Dodd’s motel room.

JoePantolianoplays the most trustworthy character in the film?

Actually, this is less plot hole than inspired casting move. Pantoliano is always playing scumbags—from Guido the pimp in Risky Business to Ralphie in The Sopranos—so we expect him to play a scumbag here. He doesn’t disappoint, but in the end (or the beginning) he turns out to be the most trustworthy character in the film. He uses Leonard, sure, but he also tries to help him, revealing the truth about his past.

IfLeonardhas short-term memory loss, how does he remember … ? (Part 2)

Throughout the picture Leonard recounts the story of Sammy Jankis, a man with apparent short-term memory loss who accidentally kills his diabetic wife with an overdose of insulin. Yet, according to Teddy (and a few frames of flashback), most of this isn’t Sammy’s story at all; it’s Leonard’s. Leonard’s wife survived the assault. She was the diabetic. She was the one who tested his short-term memory loss by demanding extra shots of insulin, which he gave her, and which ended up killing her. Leonard has such trouble digesting this information that he decides to cover it up by killing Teddy. (Click for a more detailed summary of the plot.)

But if the second half of Sammy’s story is actually Leonard’s, then Leonard shouldn’t remember it, since he was already suffering short-term memory loss at the time. Yet he does remember it; he tells it incessantly. Of course Teddy could be lying about the whole Leonard-Sammy connection. But a flashback (Sammy in the ward becomes Leonard in the ward) indicates that Teddy’s being truthful here.

What is memory anyway?

There are several ways that writer-director Christopher Nolan could explain these plot holes. Here’s one: If Leonard repeats something enough, he can condition himself to remember it. That’s how he remembers he has short-term memory loss; that’s how he remembers his argument with the cops about the second rapist. Unfortunately this means the story is reduced to “He can’t make new memories—except when he can,” and the already-murky plot turns to mush.

A better—and by no means mutually exclusive—argument is that Leonard’s condition isn’t physical at all but psychological. Leonard is capable of making new memories and does, at times (he remembers the insulin story, although the protagonists get smudged, as if in a dream). Mostly, though, he chooses to forget everything in order to a) bypass pain; and b) give his life meaning. But if his condition is a defense mechanism brought on by his wife’s rape, shouldn’t he have shaken out of it before the third insulin injection killed her? And if his short-term memory loss was brought on by the pain of his wife’s rape, why does he choose to remember the rape? Is he torturing himself? Is he torturing us? And is his memory loss after his wife’s death different than his memory loss after his wife’s rape?

More and more, Memento looks like an Escher painting. If the source of the waterfall is the pool beneath the waterfall, how does the water flow up? If Leonard can’t remember (except when he can), and it’s all a defense mechanism to avoid painful memories (except for the most painful ones), then when did he begin to forget? And why?

We hope this clears everything up.