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Memento (2000) – plot structure analysis

Posted in Written Work by Micronion on the October 25th, 2008

Memento: A story dependant on plot

Through careful organization of story elements, the film Memento successfully helps the viewer to connect and sympathize with the main character, Leonard, who is suffering from an unusual memory condition that the viewer would not ordinarily be able to relate with. By seeing the story backwards, the viewer is unaware of events that have already taken place earlier in the story, much the way that Leonard is unable to remember them. Careful placement and movement of the camera throughout the film further connects the viewer with Leonard by showing the world from his point of view. Repetition of images and scenes also immerses the viewer in Leonard’s world by creating a sense of déjà-vu which causes the viewer to question what it might be like for Leonard to see the same thing repeatedly and not remember it. The entire plot structure of Memento is crucial to the success of the film because without it the viewer would be unable to understand the story on a personal level.

The plot of Memento is arranged such that the story is presented to the viewer backwards; each consecutive scene depicts what preceded the scene that was just shown. In the beginning of the movie Leonard talks with the motel manager about his condition. Although this has happened many times before, the audience is seeing the exchange for the very first time, evoking the same feeling of newness that Leonard has because he doesn’t remember any of the previous interactions. At the same time that we are shown the main story backwards, the film also intercuts clips from the beginning of the story in chronological order which are separated from the rest of the movie because they are in black and white. These scenes gives the viewer background information about the things that Leonard is subconsciously remembering and basing his life off of, like the story of Sammy Jenkins. By alternating between clips of the past and present the film also shows how the tattoos and notes Leonard has are his way of consciously communicating with his future self. Throughout the film there are notes that have been crossed out which raises the notion that Leonard’s system for remembering things might be flawed. The end of the movie finally reveals that Leonard is consciously aware of the flaws in his system as we see him writing himself a false note about a license plate number that he knows he will trust later. Because of the way the film is structured, this revelation serves as a conclusive ending to the plot even though it is technically the beginning of the story.

To further immerse the viewer within Leonard’s world, many of the shots are set up so that we see the world as Leonard would.  One example of this is the scene where Leonard goes to find Dodd in his motel room and sets up an ambush for him. When he forgets where he is and gets in the shower Dodd enters the bathroom. For this scene the camera stays inside the shower stall and all we see is Leonard’s face and his view of the shower curtain until it’s opened, revealing Dodd to the audience at the exact moment that Leonard sees him for the first time.

When Leonard discovers his tattoos throughout the film the audience is seeing the tattoos for the first time just as Leonard is finding them on his body.  The cameras slow movement suggests that Leonard is going through this moment of revelation as if he hasn’t seen his tattoos before even though he knows he has. Throughout the film the camera is consistently closer to Leonard whenever he is talking to anyone else to give the audience a feeling of familiarity and comfort with Leonard. There are also very few moments where we see anything other than what Leonard is doing or what he is talking about. Near the end of the film there are a few clips of Leonard and his wife that are intercut with the ending sequence. These clips are quick and fragmented, telling no story, and are representative of the moments Leonard remembers of being with his wife. These clips also show how memory in general is flawed and that only fragments of things are easily recalled, just as Leonard explains to Teddy early in the film.

Repetition is used throughout the film to create a feeling of déjà-vu which helps the viewer to get a sense of how Leonard re-creates his understanding of the world each time he looks at his pictures and notes. One tattoo we see over and over reads “remember Sammy Jenkins” and each time it is shown there is a voice over of Leonard reciting what it says. This repetitive style causes the audience to think about what it might be like for Leonard to see tattoos like these and not remember why they’re there. At the same time it also seems to support the idea that one can learn things subconsciously through repetition and that Leonard just might be able to progress and learn new things about his condition over time. 

Another recurring scene is when Leonard wakes up in bed not knowing where he is. As the film progresses, quick shots of the night his wife was murdered are frequently shown while Leonard is sleeping or before he wakes up. Because of the organizational structure of the film the audience rarely knows where Leonard will wake up in the next scene and so the film tends to tease the audience with scenes that could potentially be of Leonard waking up the night of his wife’s murder but they always end up being something completely different. Again, this mirrors the idea that Leonard has no idea where he is each time he wakes up and it allows the viewer to also experience that feeling of not knowing.

Repetition is incredibly important at the beginning and ending of the film where the scenes outside of the abandoned warehouse are almost identical. In each scene, Leonard’s car pulls up and parks in the same spot. The camera is also in the same position and the same music is playing. This is notably significant because in each scene he is killing someone that he thinks is the John G. he is looking for. The ending of the film (which, we must realize, is also the beginning of the story) finally reveals that Leonard consciously creates a puzzle for his future self to solve as he copies down the license plate number that has been repeated numerous times throughout the film as a fact. This license plate number is in fact that of a man named Teddy who, as the audience is led to believe, probably had nothing to do with the murder. It is at this point that it becomes clear that the film is not about discovering who murdered Leonard’s wife, but rather it is about how Leonard copes with his condition and how he ultimately realizes that he must lie to himself in order to be happy because he knows that in the future he will believe whatever he tells himself to be true.

Without the organizational patterns used in the film, the viewer would be unable to fully understand Leonard or empathize with what he endures throughout the film. The use of repetition and subjective camera movement also reinforces the subconscious connection the viewer forms with Leonard throughout the film by hiding things he does not know or understand and by showing more of the things he is familiar with. Memento is an excellent example of a film where the plot differs from the story in such a way that is essential for telling that story to an audience. 

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