It is refreshing to see a (relatively) mainstream thriller that does not follow the tired old rules, that uses Resnais, rather than Mel Gibson, as a starting point, that substitutes for an inevitable linear plot a temporal time bomb, where the straight line of events is smashed to pieces and put together with seeming haphazardness. Further, this plot is told completely from one character’s point-of-view, a character as we by now know, with short-term memory. His great boast is that he remembers his identity and memory up until the accident – the denouement suggests that even this is a myth.
So what is the plot we’re watching? Has the emotional shock of finally getting revenge had the required, cathartic effect, and that Leonard Shelby is now piecing back the bits of remembered past? Or is he, in effect, a dead man, if we agree that someone does not exist as an identity without memory, exists in a kind of limbo, and that this dead Leonard is watching his life flashing before (or behind) him?
As all the ‘revelations’ at the end take place in the narrative’s begining, Leonard is denied all the action hero’s usual rewards – increased self-knowledge, knowledge of the world and the plot. He is given the answers at the start of his plot, and forgets them. Leonard at the end (his beginning) is a more coherent character than at the beginning (his end) – is this just because we’ve given a mass of (highly dubious) information by then and think we know him and his situation better? Or is he, as his narrative progresses, getting vaguer, moving towards inertia, the catatonia that finally swamped his altar-ego Sammy Jankis.
Our problem is that the film comprises not one plot, but four, all fragmented, full of gaping black holes, all mediated by this character who knows nothing. One is Leonard’s narrative as he sees it, as he tries to avenge his wife’s murder. The second is told in monochrome flashback (or whatever this is called in a film that runs backward), mostly told in mysterious phone calls, and seem to flesh out the gaps missing in the first plot, but actually creates more. The third is the ‘real’ plot that may have something to do with cops, snitches, femmes fatales, or may be hallucinated, misremembered by Leonard, or simply planted there as cover for another plot, or may not even exist at all. The fourth is the story of Sammy, who suffered the same ‘condition’ as Leonard.
All four are obviously connected with each other to create a discordant fugue, but each undermines the other; in a sense, hell is other plots, and Leonard is in hell. We can only take the opening sequence, where Leonard stands holding a fading photograph over a dead man’s bloody body as the only ‘reliable’ image, and in this ‘reliable’ image, another, the photograph, is slipping away, ungraspable, like Leonard’s memory, like the film.
In another sense, though, what this film does is what any detective story does, which is work its way bakwards from the crime to its source. This is what Dupin, Holmes and Poirot do, followed by legions of TV and movie detectvies. This film just takes this journey literally. In a conventional detective story, this travelling into the past is a way of making the present and future safe, of reasserting order, of filling up the gaps. As Leonard doesn’t succeed in reaching the source, and as the audience flounders too, there can be no reassertion of present and future.
Leonard is the logical conclusion of a long line of anti-detectives, figures who do not solve the crime, who are personally implicated in the investigation, and are eventually destroyed by it. ‘Vertigo”s Scottie Ferguson is the most famous example, others include ‘The Spider’s Strategem’, ‘Blow-up’ and ‘The Parallax View’. These films offer detectives who do not order chaos, who cannot reorder the world, in the way Holmes used to. Crime, solution and detective get lost in a temporal vacuum, never to be saved.
These abstractions are firmly grounded in ‘Memento’ in the body and the eye; Guy Pearce’s rather splendid physique as palimpsest, where history is recorded at random, where the keys of interpretation are lost. The split between mind and body is complete, and with it the essence of our unified humanity. Similarly, with all the Polaroids he takes, the camera may never lie, but, as discrete entities, images are meaningless, in narrative terms anyway.