Memento, Chronologically Speaking

Lenny. Don’t call him Lenny. That’s what his wife called him … and he hated it.

Introducing Leonard Shelby, the guy with amnesia in the movie that was famously filmed backward. Generously equipped with memory fragments, personality disorder, and a reversed timeline, the story is weaved neatly into a highly celebrated movie by the Nolan Brothers. 

The title? Memento

Malleable memories, unreliable testimonies, endless investigations... these are the themes that Memento heavily explores following the life of Lenny as it bathes in its glorious game of puzzles and answers. Scattered in the form of scripts and shapes, Lenny’s heavily inked physique served as a yellow page for his motivation—to trace his way to John G who “Raped and Murdered My Wife”—constantly reminding him of the trauma his late wife endured. The tattooed script is followed by “Find Him and Kill Him”—a mic drop that revealed Lenny’s ultimate goal from the start.  

In plotting his revenge, Lenny cleverly strung us along his ride with an infinite number of misguided loops that led us to open new doors—only to find more questions in them. What if you watched the mystery unfold chronologically? Would your conscience echo the same questions? 

This review will be a dissection of the psychological impact for those who have had the opportunity to watch both the theatrical and chronological versions. If you haven’t, this review could possibly cripple your experience—a responsibility I would rather not shoulder. Having dutifully watched them at least twice, I can say one thing for sure: the impact imparted from both versions is astonishingly stark. 

Image Source: Movie Image

As Lenny famously said, “Now, where was I?”

In the original art-house noir told in reverse order, the consensus of opinions amongst viewers is easily concluded: intriguing, mysterious, puzzling, and dark. Answers come first; questions follow.

The doors to these answers were constantly left ajar, theories being regurgitated and bounced amongst both critics and movie novices alike. It brought about an invigorating experience, where your hypotheses came alive and were externally validated throughout and after the movie. While the film rolled, our skepticism depended on the goodwill from both Teddy and Natalie. The friction between both characters peaked when a bruised Natalie asked for Lenny’s help and Teddy advised him otherwise, leaving a torn Lenny eventually making his decision based on an artificial testimony.

As we live through Lenny’s memory in five- to ten-minute segments, the immersive experience makes you wonder if you have amnesia too. 

On the contrary, watching the film in chronological order was a challenge. It was an anamorphic version of Nolan’s vision: opaque, dull, boringly obvious. We can safely say (and think) that if the Nolan brothers had debuted Memento in its chronological version, the movie would have probably been a huge sunk cost for all parties involved. 

But how would one turn a monotonous plot into a sophisticated one as easy as snapping a finger? Simply flipping the timeline.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying that every movie has to be told in reverse to be sophisticated or remotely interesting. Here’s my take: the reverse ordering of this film worked because the scenes were stitched together so meticulously and ultimately answered the viewers’ conjectures with a thrilling climax, like when we discovered how Lenny formulated his idea of John G at the isolated cabin as he drove off promptly with a whole new suit and a polished Jaguar. However, the chronological version laid the clues out so flatly that it robbed the film of its ambiguity that could have left the audience with more room to decipher.

On a positive note, watching this edit was a revelatory experience—like a behind-the-scenes of the theatrical version. The storyline unfolded so effortlessly—no suspense, no mental work needed. The little details that hinted at character personality switches, inner motives, who Sammy Jenkis ultimately is, and why Lenny willingly surrounded himself with sycophants. Whatever you ask, the chronological version spells it out for you word by word, character by character, and scene by scene. 

Memento, in its essence, is a maze paved with bricks of black and white and color, creating a seamless path for its audience to receive their answers. No matter how many times you’ve attempted the chronological version, the reverse storytelling model forces you to do mental work with muscles you never knew existed, making it infinitely more rewarding to create a discussion around it. However, keep in mind that our memories, too, have a certain degree of distortion. The next time you turn your attention to Lenny, watch him with an open mind while referring to the notes you had compiled in the past. Focus on catching the granular details this time—because these small puzzles are where the entertainment value is the highest.