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Film Analysis: Memento

Columbia Tristar Films starring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Joe Pantoliano released “Memento” in 2001. The movie was produced by Suzanne and Jennifer Todd and was directed by Christopher Nolan. Christopher Nolan also wrote the short story and screenplay. This film is about a man named Leonard, played by Guy Pearce, who suffered a major brain injury to the hippocampus that left him with a rare memory disorder called anterograde amnesia. This disorder causes Leonard not to be able to form any new memories. Leonard is now trying to find and kill the person who murdered his wife to avenge his wife’s death. Carrie-Anne Moss plays a friend of Leonard, or so he thinks, that assists him in finding the person who killed his wife. Joe Pantoliano plays another friend of Leonard who takes advantage of his memory problem. “Memento” accurately depicts some of the problems associated with a person diagnosed with anterograde amnesia.

Leonard, played by Guy Pearce, suffered a brain injury to the hippocampus during a struggle with an attacker that leaves him unable to form new memories. Having “damage to the hippocampus, fornix, or mammillary bodies can result in anterograde amnesia, suggesting that they are involved in the process of laying down long-term memories” (“Enpsychlopedia”). The hippocampus is the part of the brain that “mediates incoming new information. It is concerned with facts, data, and events that occur in the present and is involved with temporary memory representation allowing for controlled attention and rehearsal” (“Causes”). This injury to Leonard’s hippocampus is what causes him to not be able to form new memories. Not being able to form any new memories causes the victim to “literally live in the present at all times” (“Amnesias”). There is no way to take time to think situations over, a decision must be made immediately or the thought will be forgotten.

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While Leonard’s memory problem causes him not to be able to form new memories, his memories of everything that happened before the incident are still intact. According to MemoryLossOnline, “Memories for events that occurred before the injury may be largely spared, but events that occurred since the injury may be lost. In practice, this means that an individual with amnesia may have good memory for childhood and for the years before the injury, but may remember little or nothing from the years since” (“Anterograde”). Throughout the movie, Leonard recalls information that he remembered before his incident, such as the insurance case he investigated that dealt with another form of anterograde amnesia.

Leonard has the ability to carry on normal conversations with people, but after the conversation is over or if he gets distracted for more than a few moments, he forgets what he was doing. This is because “short term memory is generally spared, which means that the individual may be able to carry on a conversation; but as soon as he is distracted, the memory of the conversation fades” (“Anterograde”). In one scene, Leonard is arguing with Carrie-Ann Moss’ character about her boyfriend. Moss’ character tells Leonard that she is using him to kill her abusive boyfriend. She also calls him a freak and tells him that it doesn’t matter because he won’t remember anyway, and then leaves the house. After she leaves, Leonard starts looking for something to write with so he can remember what she said. While he is looking he gets distracted, and there is a voiceover of Leonard trying to remember what he was looking for.

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Before Leonard’s incident, he was an investigator for an insurance company. During his time there, he investigated a claim of someone else with a form of anterograde amnesia. To test if the person was faking, Leonard had psychiatrists test if he could learn new information instinctively. The test consisted of three metal shapes, two of which would give the patient a slight electrical shock if touched. Each day the man always touched the shapes that were electrified, and thus got shocked every time. Knowing that “an individual with amnesia can be taught a new skill…” and “…the next day the amnesic individual will claim to have no memory of the prior session, but when asked to try executing the skill, can often perform quite well” (“Anterograde”), the man should have learned which shapes were electrified, even if he didn’t know how he knew. Armed with this information, Leonard denied the man’s family any insurance money because he thought the man was faking.

Because of Leonard’s inability to form new memories, he needed a way to remember things that happened to him on a daily basis. To accomplish this, he took pictures of important things and wrote notes on those pictures. Since he was looking for the murderer of his wife, any fact he knew about the person who killed her got tattooed somewhere on his body. This is an extreme example, but one of the things people with this form of amnesia can do is “use memory aids (such as detailed daily schedules) and other methods to help these people cope with their memory disorder” (“What”). Leonard thought the use of regular notes was inefficient because you would have to remember to bring the notes, as well as look at them. Having the tattoos was also a constant reminder to him about what happened to his wife.

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Anterograde amnesia is a very serious problem and can have a devastating impact on the victim and the victim’s family. Having to rely on notes and other people to remember day to day facts that most people without a memory disorder take for granted is just one of the hardships amnesiacs face every day. Almost without fail, this movie depicts how serious having anterograde amnesia can be.

Works Cited

Causes of Amnesia. 23 March 2005. <>

Encyclopedia: Anterograde Amnesia. Psych Central. 23 March 2005. <>

Anterograde Amnesias. MemoryLossOnline. 10 March 2005.


What is anterograde amnesia? 12 March 2005.

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