Memento: The Unreliable Narrator

What if I told you a story about how my wife was stripped of her dignity and respect when she was raped and murdered by complete strangers? Following that, what if I told you that I have a short-term memory loss that doesn’t allow me to remember day to day details but somehow I’m planning to catch the man/men who took my wife’s life? Interesting, right? See the thing about it is, there was this guy, Sammy Jankis who had a similar condition to mine and he tried to take notes as a way of keeping a log of people and events he encountered, but, he mixed them all up. He didn’t have a system. For this to work, you really need a system. I have a system that helps me keep my notes organized: (1) pictures with names of places and people, (2) a map to place/remove those pictures and make sense of where I can find such people and places (3) tattoos on my body, and (4) actually notes that I’ve handwritten [it is important to know and trust my own handwriting]. Remembering the details along the way and piecing together the clues to find my wife’s murderers is not going to be my easiest feat considering my condition but I am confident in my system. Where to I start my journey… Hmm…

That was my impersonation of Leonard Shelby, the main character and narrator of Memento, as an “unreliable narrator”. This is a term coined by Wayne C. Booth in 1961, which he defined as a “narrator in literature, film, or theater, whose credibility has been seriously compromised.” Having an unreliable narrator can cause intrigue, thrill, and confusion for the audience. Writers continue to use this literary device to reveal the differences between reality and illusion. With unreliable narrators, the audience is able to question the truth and actively engage with the story.

However, it is not always a desired role in most forms of storytelling because an unreliable narrator has the potential to distance the audience from the lack of supporting evidence and details that lead to distrust in their role. That’s exactly what happened when I watched this film. I questioned every thing the narrator said about the people in his life, if they’re real or fake, if certain situations happened the way they appear as a result of what the narrator may or may not actually remembered from that instance… Just everything! This movie drove me nuts, however, I will say that it was one of my favorite films to watch and pick a part. Check out the trailer below:

Leonard “Lenny” Shelby (played by Guy Pearce), is an insurance investigator. Lenny is married to the love of his life. One day, their house is broken into by an attacker who rapes and strangles the wife; a second attacker clubs him in the head and makes an escape. This incident ends with his wife dead and Leonard with short term memory loss. Leonard recalls the second attacker’s name is John or James or similar and the last name starts with the letter “G”. The police do not believe Leonard so he decides to go on his own investigation using an intricate system of notes, Polaroid photos and tattoos that help counter his condition. During this time, Lenny encounters a series of characters that guide him on his path to the truth:

1. Friend, Teddy Gammell (played by Joe Pantoliano): Teddy is the first character we’re introduced to in the film who knows our unreliable narrator. We see them together in the opening scene where Leonard is holding a picture of blood splattered on some floor/wall tiles. The scene rewinds and we see Leonard shoot Teddy in the face. The next scene is Leonard in a motel room trying to recall his most recent events. He has his notes placed around the room as reminders for today’s journey. We see him talking to the guy at the front desk of the motel, Burt, with a photo of Teddy. Teddy walks in, he calls him “Lenny” instead of “Leonard” and they venture out in Lenny’s car. Teddy goes with Lenny to a building, finds a car with bullets laid in the seat, then when they enter the building Lenny reviews his photos of people with notes to see if anything jogs his memory of why they’re at that building. Teddy’s photo says, “Do not believe his lies. He is the one, Kill him.” and that’s exactly what happens… The next scene goes back in time again. We find Lenny reviewing photos and documents in his motel room after going out to a diner. He has a copy of Teddy’s license which says his name is John Edward Gamble. Leonard notices the tattoo on his write, “THE FACTS: ____”; he undresses to reveal and review the other tattoos. He learns that 5 clues match “Teddy”‘s license: 1. The Facts: White – Check, 2. The Facts: Male – Check, 3. The Facts: First name John or James – Check, 4: The Facts: Last Name starts with G___ – Check, 5: The Facts: License Plate SG13 7IU – Check…

In a later scene, before “Teddy” is shot, we see him and Leonard at the diner having lunch together. They’re talking about Leonard’s experience with his condition and his investigation to finding his wife’s murderer. Teddy asks Leonard, “What about Johnny G? The guy you’re looking for… He’s the reason you haven’t left town, am I right?,” then he warns Leonard to be careful, reminding him that he mentioned someone could be trying to set him up to get him to kill the wrong guy. Teddy suggests to Leonard not to rely on pictures and notes because his notes could be unreliable. We’re talking about someone’s life here. Leonard rebuttals that his memory is unreliable. He’s investigating based on the facts that he finds, not his memories. That’s how you solve a crime. As the viewer I’m sitting here wondering, is this a foreshadowing to what we saw at the beginning of the film? Is that how Leonard ends up killing Teddy believing that he’s Johnny G? Or is there some other cover up going on here? Is Teddy really Johnny G and he’s giving Leonard this advice to throw him off the trail and make him question himself?

2. Lover, Natalie (played by Carrie-Anne Moss): We first meet Natalie having lunch with Leonard at the local diner. She seems upset because Leonard really doesn’t remember her and she’s supposed to be his girlfriend. You can tell she has strong feelings for him and is genuinely hurt when he can’t recall their last encounter. She gives him the key to his motel room and tells him that he forget it at her place; when he places the key on the table we see an envelope labeled, “For: Leonard, From: Natalie”. She leaves him with a thought, “you know what we have in common? We’re both survivors.”

The flashback scene we see them in goes back to that morning before their meeting at the diner. Leonard wakes up in Natalie’s bed. He’s wondering where he is, realizes he’s in someone’s bedroom then when he sees Natalie, they started talking and he begins to remember her. She mentions how she should be able to talk to her friend about John’s G license plate that’s tattooed on his thigh. He looks at his thigh and sees that she’s right. He pulls the photos from his jacket pocket and reads the notes for NATALIE: She has also lost someone. She will help you out of pity. Natalie walks back into the room and he thanks her for helping him. She appreciates his sentiment and smiles mentioning that she helped him because he helped her (with Dodd/her abuser). They arrange a meeting for the afternoon for Leonard to pickup the license plate information from her. She asks him, “will you remember me later?” they kiss and she responds to his silence, “I think you will.”

3. Ally, Leonard’s Wife or Natalie?: The ally in the film should have been played by a character that would help Leonard on his mission to the road of success; thus the character role should have been fulfilled by his wife. However, in this case, it’s a little different. The role of the ally is actually played by Natalie. As you watch the film, you’ll question the reliability of if Natalie is actually a true ally or rather a saboteur. There’s a scene in the film that is meant to make us, the viewers, question the entirety of Natalie’s relationship with Leonard. She gets into an argument with him because he can’t remember anything and it’s frustrating her. She calls him out of his name, making fun of his condition, saying that he’s a retard and his wife was a whore, etc. Leonard can’t find his pen to make a note and Natalie seizes the opportunity to tell him her plan. She tells him that she plans to take advantage of him and use him for whatever she needs while playing the role of his friend and might even become his lover without him knowing it. She’ll take full advantage of him however he please because he won’t remember. She continues with the name calling and he grabs her face tightly, leaving her with a busted lip. She keeps antagonizing him and he punches her in the face. This scene falls in the timeline of events as the moment where Dodd would’ve hit her and she would’ve been telling Leonard about him, etc. So, we see now that based on Natalie’s revealed motivations that previous scenes in the film representing a later occurrence of events were actually false and that Natalie is using Leonard to kill Dodd instead of actually finding and killing the right man who murdered his wife, Johnny G.

4. Victim, Sammy (played by Stephen Tobolowsky): Sammy and his wife got into a car accident that caused Sammy to experience short term memory loss. He was only able to recall events for a few minutes at a time, it became a hinderance on his day job, activities at home, relationship with his wife and family, etc. Sammy went to the doctor and had brain scans done, which displayed the damage he suffered to the hippocampus, leaving him unable to make new memories. His wife called the insurance company when the medical bills piled up, and Leonard, working as an insurance investigator at the time, was sent in to assess whether Sammy’s condition was genuine.

After visiting the Jankis’s home several times, Leonard ordered some tests for Sammy to take with expert psychologists that will determine his ability or inability to condition his memory through repetition. Sammy had to pick up a series of metal objects at random, some of which were electrified, to see if he would learn through repetition to avoid the electrified objects by instinct. The tests were carried out but Sammy did not learn through conditioning, so Leonard concluded that Sammy’s problem was mental, not physical.

With the claim turned down, Sammy’s wife went to extreme measures in the hopes of getting him to remember things. For example, she had him hide food around the house, to see if he would get hungry enough to remember where he had put it, but nothing brought back his memory. Eventually, his wife decided to test him by making him inject her with insulin over and over during the course of an hour to see if he would realize that he was overdosing her. But, he did not remember. Subsequently, his wife fell into a coma and died. Sammy was unable to understand or explain what had happened, and so he was committed to a mental asylum for the rest of his life.

Analysis of the Unreliable Narrator

I originally watched this movie for a film and narrative class in college and it has become one of my favorites ever since. It’s not a movie that I watch often because it definitely has its’ twists and turns but that’s also what makes it so great to enjoy every few years or so, something to share with others and something to analyze and ponder on. The biggest takeaway from this film is understanding the timeline, the significance of the characters and Leonard’s short term memory loss, which causes him to act as an unreliable narrator throughout the story telling of the film.

Below are some of the most questionable, unreliable moments of the film:

Dodd: Natalie’s ex-boyfriend/abuser: Leonard wakes up in his motel room and notices when he opens the nightstand drawer that there is a gun on top of the Bible. It’s clearly not his. He looks around the room and hears a muffled noise coming from the closet. The noise is of a man tied up with duct tape on his mouth covered with blood running down his face from his nose. There’s a knock at the door and it’s Teddy. Leonard lets him in and tries to pretend like everything is normal until Teddy hears the muffled noises. Leonard shows Teddy the man in the closet and they asks him his name… “Dodd”… As the viewer, we’ve now identified this man as Natalie’s abuser based on the scene at her house where Leonard asks her who Dodd is and what has she gotten him into with that man. Teddy and Leonard find a way to escort Dodd out of the motel, back into the car and threaten him to leave town or they’ll kill him. We have officially, if not already, established that Leonard is an unreliable narrator. My immediate thought was, “Gosh dammit. He hid a man in his closet, tied him up, beat him, called Teddy for help, went to sleep, forgot the man was there, then Teddy shows up and he has no idea what’s going on….” So how can we trust anything Leonard is saying? He’s just an unreliable and unauthentic about his condition as Sammy Jankis.

Leonard’s Wife & Natalie: As mentioned previously, Natalie came up with a scheme to take advantage of Leonard by pretending to be his friend and playing on his condition to convince him to that the wrong guy, Dodd, killed his wife. It’s her way of taking out two birds with one stone without even getting her hands dirty. It’s a risky card to play because Leonard has all of his facts tattooed on his body and is very serious about solving his wife’s murder regardless of his memory. However, Natalie continues to also help Leonard find the license plate and ID card for John G, which earns her his trust and now she has a chance to go under the radar.

Teddy’s death: This is the opening scene of the film and throughout the unveiling of events, facts, characters and other film details, we are still left with the brewing question at the end of the film – Did Leonard kill the right guy? Is Teddy really John G? The reason we are still left wondering is because Natalie has revealed her plan to take advantage of Leonard but she’s also the source of his main details that lead up to Teddy being suspect number one, Leonard writes down his facts based on memories not actual facts (he never asks any of the other characters to prove who they are), and since Dodd has come into the story… We are constantly wondering how rational, how sane, and how reliable Leonard truly is because if he can kidnap an armed man without remembering it… What else could he be capable of? Did he kill his wife?

The story of Sammy Jankis: We learn that the story of Sammy Jankis that Leonard tells as a way to keep himself grounded and organized is a lie. At one point in the film Teddy states that Sammy Jankis did exist, but he never had a wife. He was in fact faking his condition and Leonard exposed him as a fraud during the investigation. However, Leonard then projected his own life using the story of Sammy Jankis to cope with his own traumatic incident of accidentally killing his own wife…

Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this blog. Feel free to share, like, and comment below. ‘Til next time – stay safe, healthy & sanitized!

About Brittany J. Rosario 48 Articles
Brittany J. Rosario is a Versatile Writer, who isn't afraid of expressing herself through various media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and Spotify podcast. She enjoys writing poetry, abstract painting, freestyle dancing and reviewing popular culture, history and iconic moments. Being a content creator gives her a different perspective on life. Her purpose is to maintain a positive and informative environment where people can be their true selves.