(2002, Crime-Drama, color)
Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy
If you look really closely, you can see his thumbnail getting shorter as well.
In a nutshell:
A man with short-term memory loss hunts for his wife’s killer.
We begin with the film in reverse. Leonard (Guy Pearce) shakes the Polaroid of a bloody corpse until the picture fades. When it fades completely, he puts it back into the camera and takes the picture. Then the gun flies back into his hand from where he threw it. Now the bullet zooms out of the corpse to return to the gun...
The scene changes to black and white footage of Leonard in a hotel room. He explains that he woke up in the hotel room, but doesn’t know how he got there. He has a note taped to his thigh telling him to shave it, so he does.
Back to the color scenes, a little bit before the shooting. Leonard accompanies a man named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) into an abandoned building, and then beats him “for what you did to my wife.” Teddy protests that Leonard doesn’t know who he is anymore, and asks him to go with him down to the basement to find out. Leonard shoots Teddy.
And it goes on like this. The black and white scenes take place in normal cause-and-effect-based chronology. During this sequence we learn that Leonard has brain damage that prevents him from forming memories. He can remember everything up to the point of his wife’s murder, but his head got smashed into a mirror during the incident and now he can only remember a few minutes at a time before his mind goes back to the beginning again. He has to keep track of his hunt for the killer by means of notes and tattoos.
Leonard explains this to a man on the phone, whose identity he has already begun to forget, while he follows the notes he wrote himself to tattoo another note onto his thigh. Soon he’s telling the caller the story of a man named Sammy Jankis.
Sammy Jankis suffered from the same affliction as Leonard, but was far less organized. Before his accident, Leonard was an insurance claims investigator assigned to investigate the claim for benefits filed by Sammy’s wife. Leonard ultimately recommended denial of the claim, as he incorrectly assumed Sammy’s condition to be mental instead of physical. As a result, Sammy’s wife kept trying to cure her husband by making him do something, and then as soon as he forgot, making him do it again. Finally, as a diabetic, she asked him to give her three insulin shots in a row. Sammy didn’t remember doing it previously, so he obeyed her. She went into a coma and died.
Now, from notes tattooed all over his body, Leonard knows that his wife’s killer’s name is John G. or James G., and he’s a drug dealer. The caller tells him that he’s found the man Leonard wants, and offers to arrange a meeting. Leonard agrees.
Interleaved with the black and white scenes are scenes in color that move backwards in time. Each subsequent scene takes place before its predecessor, showing us the effect and then the cause, which was an effect of a different cause, and so on. Why did Leonard go into the abandoned building with Teddy? Because he has a note identifying Teddy as his wife’s killer. Where did that note come from? He wrote it himself, based on information he got from a woman named Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss). Why did she find this information for him? Because he asked her to find out the identity of the owner of a car with a certain license plate number. Why did she agree to do this? Because he ran a man named Dodd out of town for her.
Why did Leonard run Dodd out of town for her? Because she insulted the memory of Leonard’s dead wife until Leonard beat her up, and then she stole all the pens in the house so that he couldn’t write a note to himself about the incident. Then she went out into the driveway to wait until his mind went blank. And then she ran back in to show him her injuries, claiming that Dodd beat her up because Leonard sent her to speak with him.
Why does Natalie need someone to deal with Dodd? Because her boyfriend went missing with a lot of Dodd’s money. How does she know Leonard? Well, Leonard showed up at the bar where she works because a note in his pocket told him to. Those last two effect-and-causes won’t seem connected until I tell you that Natalie’s missing boyfriend’s name is Jimmy G...
Let’s switch back to the last black and white scene, where Leonard goes out to the hotel lobby to meet his mysterious caller. It’s Teddy, who sends him to meet a drug dealer named Jimmy G. at an abandoned building. At the abandoned building, Leonard accuses Jimmy of killing his wife and then strangles him to death. Only by the time he’s done strangling him, he’s forgotten why, so he drags the corpse into the basement and goes looking for help.
By now we’ve wandered back to the place where the black and white scenes meet the color scenes. Teddy shows up, but Leonard doesn’t remember him either, forcing Teddy to explain as follows: Teddy was the cop originally assigned to investigate Leonard’s wife’s assault. With his help, Leonard tracked down and killed the real John G. a year ago, but Leonard forgot because of his condition and began to search again. Figuring that he couldn’t stop Leonard from hunting, Teddy decided to use him to kill Jimmy so that they could steal all the money (well, Dodd’s money) from the trunk of Jimmy’s car. Furthermore, the story about Sammy Jankis is a lie that Leonard tells over and over again to condition himself to believe that his wife died in the assault, instead of later when she used Leonard’s condition to kill herself with an insulin overdose.
Leonard is enraged that Teddy would use him like this. He finds out that Teddy’s real name is John G., so he hides Teddy’s keys. While Teddy’s busy looking for them, he dresses up in Jimmy’s clothes and takes Jimmy’s car. Before he can forget that any of this happened, he writes himself a note to get a tattoo of Teddy’s license plate number, knowing that this will lead him to hunt Teddy in the days to come. As he drives off to the tattoo parlor, he finds a note in the pocket of Jimmy’s coat (which he now thinks is his coat) telling him to meet Natalie.
Of all the films I’ve reviewed for this guide, this was the most difficult to summarize. I apologize if I’ve gotten some of the order wrong, or made it sound too confusing. It isn’t really. Yes, the color scenes are presented in reverse order, but each scene clearly focuses on what caused the events of the previous scene, so you’re never lost about what’s going on. Add in the more straightforward black and white sequence and you’ve got an ingeniously constructed film that starts at both the beginning and the end and works its way from each side towards the middle. The whole thing blends seamlessly, an amazing accomplishment made even more amazing when you realize that a single misplaced or overly ambiguous scene could have sent the whole thing wrong.
Mike, Kevin and Bill are on hand for the commentary, keeping mostly to the background with short quips that relate directly to the action. And really, this is for the best, as the story will demand most of your attention. When Leonard tries push a door marked “pull”, Bill references a famous Far Side cartoon with, “Lenny graduated from the Midvale School for the Gifted.” When we see Leonard take a picture he’s been carrying around for most of the previous film, Kevin says, “Finally told: the sacred origin myth of this crappy Polaroid.” When Leonard strips Jimmy’s body, Mike says, “If you’ve gotten really good at de-pantsing a corpse, you need to take a really good look at your life.” When the end credits roll, Mike tries to get into the reverse chronology spirit by introducing the film. It’s a humorous and unobtrusive commentary, but the movie mostly drowns it out. Fortunately, it’s a good movie.
(2002, Crime-Drama, color)