Scene Gems: Remembering Sammy Jankis in 'Memento'
Director Christopher Nolan is known right now for reinvigorating the Batman franchise (with the next installment coming in December), but he broke away from the pack with the neo-noir thriller, Memento (2000). Starring the always wonderful Guy Pearce, this film dove head first into the broken mind of its protagonist with an ingenious script, twisty plotting, and well-drawn characters. It's one of my favorite films, and has remarkable replay value.
Leonard Shelby (Pearce) is a man of unsound mind. After interrupting a robbery attempt, he is beaten and his wife killed. Since the attack, he can no longer form short term memories. He tracks his wife's killer via a set of clues that include annotated Polaroid pictures, and tattoos of information covering his body.
One of these tattoos on his left hand reads "remember Sammy Jankis". This scene delves into Sammy's (Steven Tobolowsky) history of memory loss, and how former insurance investigator Leonard inadvertently forced Sammy's wife into what became a deadly test of honesty. It's a heartbreaking sequence (which means much more in the context of the film) and may seem tangential. It's very important subtext, however, as we figuratively and literally see that Sammy and Leonard could be the same person.
This type of paralleling is one of the things that makes this movie so great. I haven't even touched on the multiple timelines (one moves forward, one backward) that are employed, which help you to related to a guy who can't form memories, but doesn't confuse you--a real credit to Nolan. Then there's the mystery of the killer, the great supporting cast of Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Ann Moss, the flashbacks, the dialogue, and on and on.
Memento can be appreciated and viewed a number of times to get the full weight of what is really happening. Not everything is explained, but left to the viewer to sift through the clues and determine what is real and what may be the product of Leonard's condition. A masterpiece.