Although previously mentioned on these pages, this film should not qualify as one of the best films you or I will ever see for one good reason: it decides to explain its genesis and leave us with no remainder. This approach would hardly matter in a detective story that craves climax, full explication, and a neat and tidy vacuuming of all the pertinent details. But in a film that challenges our very perception of what we can and cannot keep of this evanescent existence, you would venture that a tell-all revelation would not be appropriate. Not that, mind you, the production is wholly philosophical – it is nothing of the kind. It is noir told backwards, as if we were examining the origin of prime evil through the eyes of a fundamentally innocent man who is so cerebrally damaged he cannot recollect very much, and what he does remember only lasts long enough for him to write a coded message to himself. He voices over certain parts of the film as if he were the narrator and we listen, knowing all the while that he is either mad or sick. I tend to shy away from such films because illness deprives the character of a moral structure, allowing the writer or director to explore options in an immoral world – options that inevitably get drawn into the most banal and squalid of dark alleys. But we do not swim in the cesspool that this setup might have become. This is because the whole world is represented as a satanic maze, a multiple-choice of several levels of misdoing, and we must watch all this with a worried eye. The result is intoxicating and authentic, a cinematic experience that, despite its structure, can be enjoyed more than once.
You might ask how he remembers the code. Well, the person in question, a certain Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) still speaks English very well, and language is nothing if not a code. As any conscientious review will tell you, Leonard is a victim of anterograde amnesia, which etymologically involves a step forward, exactly the affliction that our poor Leonard must deal with: brutalized by two intruders who raped and killed his wife, he has great difficulty in creating new memories following this event. Instead, he must rely on notes, tattoos, and other immediate mnemonic devices to aid him in his quest, which of course has to do with murdering the person responsible (Leonard shot one of the intruders dead, the other smashed his head in and escaped). The grunting Hammurabic implications notwithstanding, the goal is a noble one if only because we know that Leonard could not wittingly amass enough information to locate the real person involved. His only clue (and ours) is a tattoo that says "John or James G." Since we know our plot conventions, we know that Leonard will eventually find this person and have a chance, however fleeting, of murdering him. The only thing we don't know is whether Leonard will recognize this opportunity or whether, in the film's brilliant moral quandary, some gnaw of conscience will prevent him from sinking to the level of those people who have fed his hate. Since we see him gunning down a helpless man (Joe Pantoliano) in the opening scene, one might suspect that Leonard has always been of this nature. Killing is as natural to an insurance fraud inspector as it is to a soldier of fortune (which Pearce, lean and ferocious, seems to resemble), that is to say, it is hardly natural at all. There is nothing, nothing at all, that can make us truly commiserate with Leonard's condition, and that is why he is so amazingly pitiable.
The person he kills turns out to be a man called Teddy. Teddy has a nasty way of bossing Leonard around, and displays more than a little gumption in taking advantage of his handicap. He has all kinds of ways to goad Leonard: he knows who killed his wife; he knows precisely why Leonard can't remember anything for a sustained amount of time; he even knows about Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky). Sammy Jankis is the last person that Leonard investigated in his capacity as a fraud inspector. Sammy, just like Leonard, also suffered from anterograde amnesia, but Leonard was convinced that Sammy's illness was nothing more than an act designed to collect on his generous policy. In a series of flashbacks we see a healthy Leonard testing Sammy with some primitive memory games that would quickly bore a three-year-old. When Sammy hesitates and resists forming new memories, Leonard suspects that the whole business is for show, since anterograde amnesiacs can indeed form new memories, if only for short periods of time. Sammy's claim is rejected, which makes no difference to Sammy since he can't remember anything about any sort of legal proceeding, but which does impact on the life of Sammy's spouse. So Mrs. Jankis, like many other characters in the film, goes to an extreme to prove a point. Whether she is actually mistaken about her husband's affliction is not as essential as what happens to her, a strange parallel to another couple's fate, and I will stop my remarks right there.
Amidst this ruin and moral degeneration lurks a fantastic allegory, that of the memory of the human soul. So often in both film and literature we are regaled with the story of a man without a past, a Frankenstein's monster who can be molded into whatever his creator – in this case, Teddy – chooses. Yet Leonard has a past: he remembers as much as anyone could remember up to the horrific night on which assailants robbed him of his love and his future, and this fact makes him much more dangerous than any brainwashed beast. He knows right from wrong but opts for the unethical route for vengeance and for the basic reason that he knows he will not be able to remember the difference anyway, which lowers him into an abyss with all those (mostly modern) people who believe that our actions needn't have any moral consequences. If there is nothing beyond this life we are liberated from all burden of guilt, or something along those lines. And Leonard is certainly liberated from such pangs although his existence is as close to a living hell as one could possibly imagine. Is it a coincidence that Teddy, which happens to be short for Edward in the film's context, could also be a diminutive of Theodore, as in this famous story? Is it significant, as some critics have indicated, that a person suffering from anterograde amnesia should not be able to know he has this affliction since this is necessarily a new memory? We might be getting ahead of ourselves here, although Leonard, poor Leonard, never will.