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We Finally Understand The Ending Of Memento

It's easy to forget just how long the great writer-director Christopher Nolan has been screwing with our heads. Each time he makes a movie, he seems to find new ways to upend our expectations of ... well, you name it. Conventional narrative structure, unambiguous dialogue, and the laws of physics are just some of the things that might go bye-bye at any moment when Nolan is at the helm. 

Believe it or not, most of us were introduced to Nolan's singular filmmaking bent 20 years ago with the release of his acclaimed, low-budget sophomore feature, Memento. It's a film so wildly inventive, elegant in its construction, and narratively diligent that even two decades later, it plays like a breath of fresh air, teasing the brains of even those viewers who have seen it 20 times. Unlike another popular film from the same era that explores some of the same themes, The Matrix, we don't even have a massive catalog of rip-offs to which to compare it, because Memento simply defied imitation.

The flick starred Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, a former insurance investigator with an interesting condition: Anterograde amnesia, which prevents him from forming new memories. Every ten minutes or so, Leonard's brain hits the reset switch, which complicates his single-minded mission to find and kill the man who raped and murdered his wife, and left him brain-damaged. The two central figures "helping" Leonard, Natalie and Teddy, are portrayed by Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano, respectively.

A brief primer on Memento

In case the details of Memento are a little hazy, allow us to refresh your memory (with apologies to Leonard). Since he loses whatever memories he's formed every few minutes, Leonard has come up with a system to keep track of information: A series of handwritten notes, Polaroid photographs with captions, and (for the really important stuff, like the central truth JOHN G. RAPED AND MURDERED MY WIFE) tattoos.

Memento is presented in two sets of alternating segments. The first is a black-and-white narrative in which Leonard discusses his case with an unseen party on a telephone in a hotel room. The main story, on the other hand, is in color, and runs in reverse — that is, each successive scene happened chronologically before the last one. This helps force the audience into Leonard's frame of mind in that we don't know what happened before whatever scene we're currently watching, because Nolan hasn't shown us yet.

In the opening scene, which is the only one that actually runs in reverse, we see Leonard shoot and kill Teddy in an abandoned building, taking a photo to remind himself of what happened. In the main narrative, the first thing we see is Leonard getting a tattoo of a license plate number. Teddy is introduced shortly thereafter as a friendly and helpful figure, but Leonard has a Polaroid of him with the caption DON'T BELIEVE HIS LIES. We do come to see that Teddy isn't exactly trustworthy — near the film's end (remember, the chronological beginning of the story), he manipulates Leonard into killing local hustler Jimmy. Teddy, however, isn't the only one manipulating our hero, as we also see Jimmy's girlfriend Natalie use him to get rid of a local drug dealer named Dodd.

Ultimately, Natalie is the one who supplies Leonard with the trace on his license plate number, which leads him to "John Edward Gammell," Teddy's real name. This, of course, seals Teddy's fate, which we saw in the film's opening ... but did Leonard really get his revenge? 

Leonard's story about Sammy Jankis might be more important than it appears

Leonard says that his final memory is of his wife dying, and we see the crime, but a story that he tells the mysterious party on the phone in the black-and-white sequences is actually crucial to the main story, as it throws into question whether said crime even happened. Leonard tells the story of Sammy Jankis (portrayed by Stephen Tobolowsky), a man with anterograde amnesia whom he met in the course of his job. 

Leonard had denied Jankis' insurance claim on the grounds that his condition couldn't be proven, causing his wife to take matters into her own hands. She did so by requesting that Jankis give her multiple, successive insulin shots, killing her but proving that his condition was real. Crucially, an extremely brief shot late in the film shows Sammy sitting in a mental institution, and in a brief flash, he's replaced by Leonard. This will become relevant later.

The final black-and-white sequence shows us that Leonard has been talking to Teddy on the phone, and that Teddy is, or at least claims to be, an undercover cop. He directs Leonard to the abandoned building where Jimmy, who Teddy says is Leonard's "John G.," is due to show up. 

At the film's end, when Leonard kills Jimmy, the dying man whispers the name "Sammy" — a name he would only know if Leonard had told him. This throws Jimmy's guilt into serious question, and when Teddy arrives to tell Leonard that he's killed his wife's attacker, Leonard expresses doubts. This causes an impatient Teddy to blow a fuse, and when he does, he might come closer than anyone else in the whole movie to actually telling Leonard the truth of his situation.

Teddy might be the only one who comes close to telling Leonard the truth

Teddy tells Leonard that the two of them had tracked down and killed Leonard's wife attacker over a year ago, and even shows him a Polaroid of an ecstatic, blood-soaked Leonard pointing to a tattoo-free spot on his chest to prove it. He tells Leonard that, despite this, the memory refused to take, so, with plenty of shady John G.'s out there in need of some street justice, Teddy had simply continued "helping" him. Heck, Teddy points out, even his real name is John G. — a piece of info he probably should have kept to himself.

Further, Teddy asserts that Leonard's wife had actually survived the attack, and that the Sammy Jankis story was actually Leonard's story. Leonard had accidentally killed his wife with an overdose of insulin, and projected the story onto someone else to escape that trauma.

It's worth pointing out that Teddy's revelation might be totally true, totally false, or a mixed bag. Our only real clue as to its veracity comes from the web site of Christopher Nolan's brother Jonathan, who wrote the short story upon which Memento is based (via Salon). According to him, Leonard is indeed an escapee from a mental asylum, meaning that, at the very least, Teddy's story could be true. In the end, it matters little, because before Leonard can forget said story, he takes an action that will set him and Teddy on the deadly collision course that we see in the movie's opening scene.

Memento ends with Leonard making a deal with himself

In Memento's final moments, Leonard makes a decision as Teddy drives away. "Can I just let myself forget what you've just told me?" his narration asks. "Can I just let myself forget what you've made me do? You think I just want another puzzle to solve ... another John G. to look for?" Taking out his notepad, he writes down Teddy's license plate number. "You're a John G.," his narration intones, "So, you can be my John G. Do I lie to myself to be happy? In your case, Teddy, yes, I will."

Those last two sentences are absolutely crucial. Leonard is lying to himself. He knows it. He's pissed at Teddy for manipulating him, and in that moment, he makes up his mind that, if he's going to be manipulated, it's going to be at his own hand, and not that of anyone else. What's more, those who try to use him to their own ends will pay — remember, Leonard's righteous fury never dies down. He doesn't experience the passage of time, so the memory of his wife's murder, even if it never happened, is always fresh.

He knows that whatever revenge he achieves may well be hollow, but he doesn't care. At the moment he decides to "frame" Teddy for his wife's murder, he acknowledges this. As long as he thinks he's won, he's fine, even if the memory of his "victory," like all of his memories, will fade away. 

Maybe he should get a tattoo.