Memento Movie Poster

Memento Explained: Let’s Discuss That Ending

Memento is a movie that premiered on the 5th of September 2000 at the Venice International Film Festival and later hit European theatres in October. It is Christopher Nolan’s second movie as a director and the first that garnered him the attention he is to have in the later, more established stages of his illustrious career.

The movie was based off Christopher’s brother, Jonathan Nolan’s pitch, following his piece “memento mori” and is a neo-noir psychological thriller. Grossing over $39 million on a $9 million budget and being nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing, the film was praised by critics for its non-linear narrative and its play on memory; showing memory to be malleable to perception, affected by emotions, grief in this case, and consequently altered in self-deception. This article hopes to help explain the movie Memento and its convoluted plot.


Momento Movie Cast:


Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby
Guy Pearce, the Australian actor known for his other works in films such as The Hurt Locker and King’s Speech, plays the role of Leonard Shelby, the main protagonist. Guy was born to an English father and mother and moved to Australia when he was three. He has been nominated for the Golden Globes once and won the Primetime Emmy awards once. He was also nominated for best actor by the USA’s Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films for his role as Leonard in Memento. In the film, he is a man who suffers from anterograde amnesia trying to avenge his wife who was raped and murdered.. or so he chooses to believe.
Jorja Fox as Catherine Shelby
The model turned actress who has also starred in television series such as West wing and Crime Scene plays the role of Catherine Shelby, Leonard’s wife. We do not know much about her as she is dead when the movie begins, and we only find out bits and pieces of her that the audience has to string together from Leonard’s frayed memories.
Carrie-Anne Moss as Natalie
Carrie-Anne-Moss, the British Columbian actress thrust into the limelight in The Matrix 1999 plays the role of Natalie. Natalie is a waitress at Ferdy’s Bar and is shown to be helping Leonard in the beginning. The plot then thickens to show how she fits in with the events and what her motives really are.
Joe Pantoliano as Teddy
Joseph Peter Pantoliano is an actor born in New Jersey who first came into prominence alongside a 21-year-old Tom Cruise in Risky Business, 1983. He’s won a primetime Emmy for his work in the Sopranos and has two SAG nominations to his name. In this movie, he plays the role of Teddy, an undercover cop, or so he claims, who was assigned the Catherine Shelby’s case. He takes pity on Leonard and assists him on his quest to find the killer of his wife.
Stephen Tobolosky as Sammy Jankins
The only uncontested information we have on Sammy is that he is a retired accountant who got into a car accident which resulted in him damaging his brain. This led to him having short term memory loss and he could not form any new memories. The rest of it is divided between Leonard’s story and Teddy’s testament.


Leonard’s Story


Leonard’s side of the story says that Sammy and his wife got into a car crash which resulted in Sammy damaging his hippocampus leaving him with anterograde amnesia. When Mrs. Jankins came in to claim insurance at the company Leonard was working in he was called in to see if the case was genuine. Leonard concluded that the problem was mental and not physical. This prompted Mrs. Jankins to try and make Sammy remember by trying various tests to make him remember. The Last of one of such tests was asking him to administer the insulin injections she needed in order to control her diabetes. Hoping that Sammy would crucially remember before she overdoses, she asks him to inject him with insulin over and over again, but Sammy doesn’t remember, and she eventually overdoses.


Teddy’s Story


According to Teddy, Sammy was just a fraud who had been found out by Leonard and he never even had a wife. In this narrative, Leonard had merely projected his own tragedy into that of Sammy as he couldn’t live with the fact that he killed himself.


Related: The Matrix Explained


Memento Explained: The Plot

Momento Pictures Indicating Various Scenes

The thriller starts with a shot of a developed polaroid photo of a man who’s been shot in the head. The shot frames this scene for a good while so as to immediately pull the audience into the feel of the movie from the get-go. The shot then reverses time and the rest of the movie retraces the events that led to its climactic start.

The story revolves around the story of Leonard Shelby, an investigator who works for an insurance company. Leonard also has anterograde amnesia and is incapable of forming new memories. The only memories he can retain are from the distant past to the incident that led to his disability, ie, the attack at his house the night his wife was raped and murdered. He claims that there were two men who broke into the house and that he killed the assailant who murdered his wife while the other clubbed him on the head and escaped while damaging his brain. Police do not buy his story about the 2nd man as they have no reason to since the 2nd man purportedly frames Leonard.

Leonard then goes on a quest to find the man himself and has nothing but his Initials to go by, a J.G. His only lead is that the J stands for either James or John. Armed with this and a dysfunctional memory he embarks on a quest to avenge his wife.

Leonard also constantly reminds himself to remember a certain Sammy Jankins, a fellow anterograde amnesiac. He and Sammy have the same disorder and while Sammy wasn’t able to overcome his disability with repetition and instinct he is determined to learn from Sammy’s experiences and considers himself more disciplined and calculated.

He then starts a convoluted operation to stay organized that requires him to take polaroid photos, make notes and tattoo his body with numerous ‘mementoes’ that not only serve to remind him of his objectives but also tracks his own actions and the people he is involved with.  He cannot trust anyone as he never remembers.

In the beginning, we see that Leonard is staying at a motel, plotting out how he is going to track down his man. Soon after we are introduced to Teddy, a man who says that he is Leonard’s friend. With the help of Teddy, Leonard is able to track down a John G.

Finding a note in his pocket he meets Natalie, a bartender who decides to help him for a favor. She wants him to drive a man named Dodd out of town and she would, in turn, run the number on a plate he had written down.

Leonard runs into Teddy again and Teddy helps him with Dodd but warns him against Natalie. Leonard seemed to listen at first but a note he had written on a photo of Teddy had instructed him to “not trust his lies”.

Now Natalie had run the driver’s license for a John Edward Gammell, which is also Teddy’s full name. Having confirmed his findings on a “John G” and his warnings, Leonard drives Teddy to an abandoned building and shoots him in the head.


Who Really Killed Leonard Shelby’s Wife?

Leonard And His Wife In Momento

The answer, if you want it quick and simple is.. Leonard himself.

Now if you want the rest of the explanation.. here goes

It is revealed in the end between the conversation between Teddy and Leonard that Sammy did not have a wife but that it was Leonard who did. We also learn that Leonard’s wife was diabetic, and it was never Sammy who was administering the insulin shots. It was Leonard who was doing so! This is revealed in the dialogue between Leonard and Teddy at the end. Here is a transcript of the dialogue:


Leonard: He knew about Sammy, why would I tell him about Sammy?!

Teddy: You tell everybody about Sammy! Everybody who’ll listen! “Remember Sammy Jankis?” “Remember Sammy Jankis?” Great story. Gets better every time you tell it. So you lie to yourself to be happy. There’s nothing wrong with that. We all do it. Who cares if there’s a few little details you’d rather not remember?

Leonard: What the fuck are you talking about?

Teddy: I don’t know. Your wife surviving the assault. Her not believing your condition. The torment and pain and anguish tearing her up inside. The insulin.

Leonard: That’s Sammy, not me. I told you about Sammy.

Teddy: Yeah, right. Like you tell yourself over and over again. Conditioning yourself to remember, learning through repetition. Sammy let his wife kill herself. Sammy ended up in an institution. Sammy was a con man. A faker.

Leonard: I never said that Sammy was faking.

Teddy: You exposed him for what he was. A fraud.

Leonard: I was wrong. That’s the whole point. See, Sammy’s wife came to me…

Teddy: Sammy didn’t have a wife. It was your wife who had diabetes.


This Tidbit Of Information Leaves The Most Confusing Part Of Memento Explained And Reveals The Situation As It Really Is.


Is Sammy Jankins Leonard Shelby?

A Tatoo That Writes Remember Sammy Jankis

 The movie does not fully reveal the story of Sammy but leaves in enough hints and traces for the audience to incur what they want from it (which also tends to be Christopher Nolan’s preferred style in his other works). As the whole movie is based off the idea of subjective perceptions of objective realities, the audience is asked to be investigators much like Leonard is. Sammy’s story seems to be partly real and partly fictitious. The real character Sammy is, at least as we know it, a fraud who Leonard had to investigate during his time at the insurance company. The Sammy that is then revealed through Leonard’s memories is a Sammy whose life has been woven in with Leonard’s.  We learn that Leonard, in his grief, had lived in denial about killing his own wife. He then blocks out this memory by always reminding himself to ‘remember Sammy Jankins’. He even tattoos this right on his left hand, between his index finger and his thumb. Sammy now became the character he ascribed his own tragedy too. This way he could rid himself of blame and look for vengeance instead. We also see Sammy at the mental ward become Leonard for a brief moment to show the audience that it was indeed Leonard who had the problem. This little shot leaves a lot of the confusion in Memento explained if only you pay attention.


The transcript from the movie reveals it below

Teddy: I guess I can only make you remember the things you want to be true. Like old Jimmy down there.

Leonard: He’s not the right guy.

Teddy: He was to you. Come on, you got your revenge. Enjoy it while you still remember. What difference does it make whether he was your guy or not?

Leonard: It makes all the difference.

Teddy: Why? You’re never gonna know.

Leonard: Yes, I will.

Teddy: No, you won’t.

Leonard: Somehow I’ll know.

Teddy: You won’t remember!

Leonard: When it’s done, I will know.

Teddy: I thought so, too, I was sure of it, but you didn’t! That’s right. The real John G. I helped you find him over a year ago. He’s already dead.

Leonard: Don’t lie to me anymore.

Teddy: Look, Lenny…I was the cop assigned to your wife’s case, I believed you. I thought you deserved a chance for revenge. I’m the one that helped you find the other guy in your bathroom that night. The guy that cracked your skull and fucked your wife. We found him, you killed him. But you didn’t remember. So, I helped you start looking again, looking for the guy you already killed.


Is The Movie Memento Based On a Real Story?


The movie Memento was based off a pitch made by Jonathan Nolan, Christopher’s brother. Jonathan had gotten the idea from his general psychology class at Georgetown University and Christopher asked him to work on a draft for it. After Jonathan made the draft Christopher started working on the screenplay. The story revolved around a man who had anterograde amnesia, thus preventing him from forming new memories. This idea then gave rise to a short story titled “memento mori” which was the basis for the movie ‘Memento’.


Memento Memory. What Is Memento? Memento Explained


Memento, as in the movie, seems to have its name derived from the Latin “memento mori”, which was Jonathan’s story of which the movie is adapted. Memento mori translates to ‘remember you must die”. It is a medieval Latin Christian theory that focuses reflections on death not as a morbid practice but as an inspiration to truly live.

The philosophy intends its practitioners to live for a cause rather than in the pursuit of earthly goods as everything is temporary. It is also apt for the movie as the protagonist’s main reason for living is to avenge his wife and all his memories are temporary, allowing him to adopt any purpose he wants as long as it is based around vendetta.

Memento, the word, also means – “an object kept as a reminder of a person or event”. In the movie, the protagonist uses a series of written notes, Polaroid photos, and tattoos to constantly remind himself of his wife, the new stories he accrues, the people he meets and what his next step should be.


Memento Was Teddy Telling The Truth?


Simply put, Teddy was telling the truth but the way in which the story was delineated forced his narrative to be doubted as we see him dead in the opening scene of the movie. This coupled with the note on his polaroid reminding Leonard not to trust him, being constantly flashed for the audience to view, plays with the psyche of the audience. This is the genius behind the movie- its storytelling and how it proves the very subject the movie is based on its own audience; the power of self-delusion and the pliability of memory.


Memento Natalie Explained 


 Natalie is played by the talented Carrie Anne Moss. She appears as a friend who helps Leonard in his path to vengeance and is also vaguely depicted for a while as a lover in a scene showing her sleeping next to him, cuddling. She seems to pity him after she realizes that Leonard really has a memory problem and the note on her polaroid that reads “She has also lost someone. She will help you out of pity” creates a bias in the viewer’s mind. Memento explained, must therefore crucially include the events in chronological order, which the movie doesn’t, so as to fully shed light on her motives and role in the movie. We later learn that Jimmy, the man Leonard kills was her boyfriend and that Dodd was an associate of Jimmy who was trying to get his money back. Natalie manipulates Leonard to achieve her own ends and is eventually responsible for the death of Teddy at the beginning of the movie.


Memento Ending Explained


The whole movie is shot in two narratives – color and black and white sequences. Understanding that the two-color sequences tell different narratives is crucial to understanding the movie. The color denotes his perception of events, temporary events that he soon forgets while the black and white sequence shows the actual events in chronological order.

In the black and white sequence, we see that Teddy is an undercover cop who had initially helped him find his Wife’s murderer but as the name “John. G” is a common one, Leonard simply forgets this and begins the cycle all over again.  This led to him being used by Teddy to dispose of a James.G, Jimmy, a drug dealer who was also Natalie’s boyfriend so that Teddy could take the money.

Teddy further tells him that John.G is such a common name that even his own name has a John.G. Teddy also tells Leonard that the story of Sammy and his wife wasn’t real, and it was his own story that he had chosen to associate with someone else to escape the guilt.

Enraged, Leonard burns the polaroid of Jimmy and writes on the back of Teddy’s pic to not trust him. He notes down his number and rides away until he forgets so he can start all over with a new John.G to target.  After a while he arrives at Emma’s tattoo shop and he has forgotten everything that happened, and he begins his cycle of vengeance again; This time with Teddy’s information.




The film pays tribute to both the talents of Jonathan Nolan as a writer and Christopher Nolan as a director. Brilliantly made from a cinematographic perspective as well as beautifully told through the direction of Christopher, Memento really is a masterpiece of a movie and stands as among one of the best in its time.

Masterfully edited to tell a story along two different time frames, the movie is fresh and appealing to an audience that is willing to engage.  The beginning is riveting and the way the story unfurls grabs you by the lapel and doesn’t let go.

A few twists into it and you’re scratching your head, trying to figure out who is really who and what will lead where. It is even more arresting as the protagonist leads you through a myriad of his memories that has to be restarted every few minutes and the audience has to try and keep pace with this constantly changing perspective as each transition reveals something new.

It is brilliant that the hero here, Leonard, is an investigator and the movie asks its audience to be the same. The best part, however, according to the writer, is how the movie shows us the unreliability of our memories and how easily they can be influenced. Even when we begin to learn what an unreliable narrator Leonard is, we still choose to trust him and not Teddy, which is only reinforced by the repeated scenes that show the picture of Teddy with the words, “don’t trust his lies”. This was deliberately done by the makers of the film to play with the audience’s psyche and it worked like a charm.

The movie has been selected among The 21st Century’s 100 Greatest Films by BBC and makes its entry at number 25, ranks 58 in the 301 greatest movies of all time chosen by the Empire and comes in at 13 on the greatest edited movies of all time selected by Motion picture editors Guil.

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