#5 in my ranking of Christopher Nolan’s films.
This has one of those endings that so completely recast everything that came before it that it actually makes the rest of the movie better. It’s easy to see why this blew a lot of minds when it first came out. The finale takes actions from the very beginning and gets the audience to reconsider them in completely new ways, all while keeping the incredibly complex structure clear as the film moves both backwards and forwards to a point in the middle. It really is a bravura performance from a sophomore director looking to make a name for himself in the industry.
It is the story of Leonard Shelby, a man who cannot form new memories having been hit in the head during a break in that led to the rape and murder of his wife. He is on a quest to find the man the police say doesn’t exist, a second criminal other than the one Leonard shot during the crime. He has a set of clues tattooed on his body, a large police file with missing pages, and a story about Sammy Jankis. Sammy was an accountant who, after an accident, couldn’t form new memories when Leonard was an insurance investigator. Leonard turned down the claim, but the memory of Sammy gave him the foundational knowledge of his own condition and how it should be treated, through repetition and routine (explaining how Leonard could know so much about his own condition).
The most obvious advantage to the movie’s structure is that we enter new circumstances just as new to the situation as Leonard. When we suddenly see Leonard in a chase, we’re as confused as him as to whether Leonard is chasing the other man, Dodd, or if Dodd is chasing him. The realizations are often some of the strongest sources of comedy in a largely serious and attention requiring film, but they have the more important task of keeping us firmly in Leonard’s shoes. Perspective has always been important to Nolan, and this is probably his flashiest form of that focus. It also has the advantage of being more than a gimmick.
There is a surprisingly strong emotional core to this film, and it’s not quite what it would obviously seem from the beginning. Leonard has an acquaintance, or maybe he’s a friend, or maybe he’s some kind of malevolence, named Teddy. He’s an undercover cop, or a drug dealer, or a snitch for the police, but he spends most of the movie chasing after Leonard in a friendly manner, helping him clean up his messes and being generally amiable. The movie begins with Leonard shooting Teddy in the head, accusing him of being the man who raped and killed his wife, and goes backwards from there. As we go back, unlearning what we’ve assumed, we piece together the little bits to realize that Leonard is being manipulated by everyone. The guy who runs the Discount Inn Leonard’s staying at is renting him two rooms. Natalie, a woman who works in a bar, tricked Leonard into attacking Dodd. The seemingly big reveal, though, is that Teddy helped Leonard find his wife’s killer a year before, but it did nothing to fix Leonard’s condition, and Teddy’s been using Leonard ever since to attack bad people who match the killer’s description ever since.
The movie’s emotional payoff though is in the interplay between the memory of Sammy and how Leonard, to a degree, comes to accept where he is. Leonard, through his own experiences, has learned that Sammy maybe could have been helped. If he had made the effort to help Sammy, then Sammy’s wife wouldn’t have gone through the dangerous experiment to test her husband (getting him to inject her repeatedly with insulin over a few minutes) that led to her death and Sammy wouldn’t have been left alone in a strange hospital where he doesn’t know anything or anyone. Meanwhile, Leonard has the same condition, knows it, and he uses it to exact some justice on the world, taking out a dirty cop.
It’s an ending far removed from the easier endings Hollywood likes to put out (one of the advantages of an independent production, obviously). Leonard doesn’t find his wife’s killer. He doesn’t get cured. He manipulates his own condition so that he can feel justified days later and without any guilt taking out the man who had been manipulating him for months if not years. It is both clever and satisfying in a strange way. The ending to Memento is one reason why I find the ending to Insomnia to be such a let down.
Now, this film isn’t perfect. On the first go through Carrie Ann Moss’s character of Natalie feels a whole lot more important than she actually is. She’s not unimportant, but the time spent with her and Dodd end up feeling like a side quest rather than an essential element of Leonard’s journey, a way to help expand the short story written by Jonathan Nolan that inspired the script. She does help illuminate the idea of manipulation and she has a direct connection to the very end of the movie (the beginning?). However, since Leonard’s actual story is about his relationship with Teddy, Leonard going off to deal with Natalie’s problems because the suit he picked up had her name in the pocket ends up feeling a bit thin.
That’s my only real complaint about the movie, though, that one of the main early drivers of the idea that Leonard’s being manipulated feels a bit too disconnected from Leonard’s actual journey. It’s minor. Otherwise the movie is pretty great. Trippy while working firmly in a limited budget, holding together a complex idea through complex execution really well. This Nolan fellow, he could be going places.