Amnesia in Contemporary Film: The Neo-Noir Identity Crisis

Memento (2000)
“Remember Sammy Jankins” Leonard Shelby’s Tattoo- Memento (2000)

The neo-noir film genre has long explored the idea of self-concept, more often than not forcing protagonists to question themselves through a form of identity crisis. Within traditional neo-noir films, this crisis is often seen as a minor personality trait unfortunately developed by the protagonist throughout the film. Today, contemporary films are using the concept as the pinnacle aspect of the storyline, affecting a highly evolved, psychologically intriguing protagonist often in the form of amnesia.

Roman’s Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown is considered to have pioneered the Neo-Noir identity crisis in its modern take on traditional Film Noir conventions. Unlike the french-inspired movement, however, this neo-noir classic creates a deeper intellectual connection with the audience’s through its inclusion of political turmoil, moral ambiguity, and deeper psychological insight into characters.

Jake Gittes’ identity crisis shown through costuming

Jake Gittes serves as the protagonist within Chinatown, a private detective whose exploration into an adultery case exposes him to the dark world of the California water wars. Throughout the film, Jake is subject to an array of psychological torments, each contributing to his gradual loss of identity.

Polanski represents Gittes’ identity crisis by slowly shrouding more and more of the protagonist’s face from the audience. As the story progresses, Jake’s definable attributes are soon lost, highlighting the characters psychological crisis and, in turn, forging a convention used today in modern neo-noir films.

This subtle, underlying loss of an identity played a key role in the characterisation of the traditional neo-noir protagonist. Today, however, the role of self-concept is becoming increasingly vital to the neo-noir storyline as films are beginning to expire the idea of identity loss as a result of amnesia. Shutter Island, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Memento are three significant neo-noir films known for their exploration into memory loss and, as a result, the loss of a characters true self.

3. Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010)

Shutter Island
Teddy Daniels investigates the mysteries of Shutter Island

(Contains Spoilers)

Scorsese’s masterpiece Shutter Island is a controversial neo-noir thriller released in 2010. Set in in the mid 1950s, the story follows U.S Marshal Teddy Daniels and his investigation into the mysterious disappearance of a woman from the Shutter Island hospital for the criminally insane. Stranded on the island with only his partner as support, Daniels begins to unravel the dark secrets lurking behind the walls of the frightening facility… or does he? The discoveries and incidents occurring on the island may be all in Daniels head as the film reveals his true role as a patient within the hospital.

Revealed later in the story, Daniels developed psychogenic amnesia (memory loss caused by psychological stress) after witnessing his wife down his three children. Sentenced to Shutter Island for subsequently killing his suicidal wife, Daniels suffers relapses into his former years as a U.S Marshal. This rejection of his true self has Daniels facing an intense identity crisis, seen through his adoption of a previous version of himself.

Shutter Island uses Daniels amnesia to cast mystery over the true on goings of the film. Through projecting his perceptions of the world onto the audience, Daniels sways viewer’s opinions of the facility and the people it contains. This method produces an effective portrayal of the contemporary neo-noir protagonist, highlighting the unknowing victim of amnesia and identity loss.

2. Michel Gondry’s The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Gondry’s neo-noir film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind looks at the concept of identity from an eccentric new angle. Rather than the focusing on an unwilling victim of amnesia, this film highlights an active pursuit of memory loss.

This film follows protagonist Joel Barish and his unusual relationship with Clementine Kruczynshi. Stuck in a confusing and draining partnership for two years, the two want nothing more than to move on and forget the other ever existed. Clementine, however, takes this desire quite literally, enlisting the help of Lacuna Inc. to wipe all memories of Joel from her mind. Naturally, upon learning of Clementine’s actions, Joel follows suit.

“Suffice it to say, Miss Kruczynski was not happy and she wanted to move on. We provide that possibility.”- Howard, Lacuna Inc.

The majority of the film takes place inside Joel’s mind during the chronological rehashing and erasing of his memories. As each memory is revealed, Joel begins to feel nostalgic for his life with Clementine and begins desperately trying to hold on to the disappearing portion of his identity.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) - Please Let Me Keep This Memory

The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind looks at the protagonist’s identity crisis in a way profoundly different from any popular amnesia-based films seen today. Rather than exploring the consequences of amnesia, it looks into the process of losing one’s memories in a way audiences are able to understand. Through Joel’s experience, the film emphasises the value of one’s memories and, in turn, a person’s identity. As the story progresses, Joel becomes more desperate and helpless, trapped within his own degrading mind.

This touching film allows audiences to feel a deeper connection as a determined protagonist struggles to hang on to his difficult yet alluring femme fatale. Maintaining key conventions, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind serves as a modern neo-noir film that explores the concept of identity in a new and original manner.

1. Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000)

Possibly the most infamous amnesia-based movie of all time is one of Christopher Nolan’s earliest works, Memento (2000). This film follows the story of Leonard Shelby as he hunts down the man who killed his wife. Suffering from amnesia, he uses a series of tattoos, notes and Polaroid’s to keep him progressive in his search.

Leonard Shelby uses tattoos to document clues on his path to revenge

This character represents the height of the neo-noir identity crisis. Unable to form permanent new memories, Shelby finds himself unable to trust anything but the hand written clues he leaves himself. This tormented, confused character is both morally ambiguous and lost in a world filled with people he believes are out to destroy his goal.

The storyline, which plays out reverse-chronologically, complements the identity crisis that serves as the primary theme within the film. This techniques allows viewers to remain on the same page as the character throughout the story, giving them insight into his world and allowing him to warp their perception of characters and events.

Leonard Shelby’s character within Memento is an amplification of the traditional neo-noir protagonist. Christopher Nolan has admirably and effectively pulled this off, allowing audiences to be fully immersed in Shelby’s world while still serving under the neo-noir film genre.

The exploration into memory loss by each of these films are enchanting and effectively extend the neo-noir identity crisis into the contemporary world. The adaptation of such a characteristic allows for the film genre to continue to remain popular as the film industry continues to evolve.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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I study the entertainment industries, drawn mainly to film and TV. I love psychological thrillers and unsettling themes. That being said... give me a good chick flick any day

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  1. Jon Lisi
    Jon Lisi

    Interesting article. I never would have classified Eternal Sunshine as a neo-noir–that’s rather bold of you to do so I think. But if you’re understanding neo-noir to be a mode of thematic articulation then Eternal Sunshine certainly fits into the category. Genre is a fascinating concept because genres are never really stable and boundaries often blur. I guess the question that I often ponder is whether or not something can be noir if the aesthetics don’t adhere to the conventions of noir. That is, Eternal Sunshine doesn’t have the “look” of noir, and the narrative is more romantic comedy meets science fiction than anything we typically associate with noir, yet it does deal with issues of identity crisis, so how do we classify it?

    • Nicola Kahler

      This is a good point! Genre today is getting harder and harder to classify, particularly as filmmakers experiment more with genre boundaries and concepts. Eternal Sunshine has influences from many genres, so it is more of a hybrid genre film rather than strict noir.

  2. Cory Ramirez

    The best Amnesia movie that I have watched is Mirage (starring Gregory Peck). They even discuss the limits of amnesia in one scene.

  3. Terrell

    Good post. Have you ever seen James Garner in Mr. Buddwing? It has a nice treatment of amnesia which really did keep one guessing until the end. A wide array of interesting characters.

  4. Whitney Grant

    Does “Dark City” (1998) fall into the category of neo-noir? Great movie using the theme of amnesia.

  5. Jeannette Clayton

    Great article Nicola. I watched Memento for the first time when I was immersed in neuroscience during my degree, and I was stunned at how accurate it is. A screening of the film at the Cambridge Science Festival was accompanied by a talk from Tim Bussey, a memory expert at Cambridge, and he pointed out a plethora of subtle references in the film to the case of H.M. that demonstrate how thoroughly it was researched. What is so brilliant about the film though is the way accurate science was used to build such a powerful story – it really gets at huge concepts like the nature of memory and the mind and tells a compelling human story in a really original way. I think for it’s layers of complexity, it has to be one of the greatest films ever made.

    • Nicola Kahler

      That’s so fascinating! It’s so great to have something on our screens that is grounded in scientific research without being sci-fi! It only makes the film that little bit more intellectually stimulating 🙂

  6. chelsea

    Very engaging article.

  7. Arlene Figueroa

    It’s been a long while since I watched a film that properly depicts a mental health or neurological condition. Last time I watched something was the famous Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman-starrer Rain Main, that depicted autism.

    It would be nice to see a lot more accurate and responsible (sensitive) portrayals of mental conditions in the movies. Film is a widespread and popular medium that doesn’t yet seem to have realized it’s own responsibility to educate as well as entertain.

  8. Courtney LeMay

    You provide excellent examples of how memory loss shapes these three films. Why did you put them in reverse chronological order? It is an interesting choice, not only from the perspective that earlier films often have an effect on later movies in a similar genre but also because the presence of spoilers in the first two sections might have prevented people from reading the rest of your article, when the paragraph on Memento was possibly the best section —and without spoilers!

    • Nicola Kahler

      This is a good point! My logic was to build to the most interesting and monumental amnesia-based film (memento) rather than peak the article too early 🙂

      Also, amnesia plays an increasingly significant role in the progressing films. Shutter Island, firstly, does not reveal the protagonist’s condition until the end of the film. This contrasts to Memento where the entire film revolves around the concept.

  9. Aliya Gulamani

    Really enjoyed this article. I have watched all three films and found them absolutely fascinating – the way in which you connect their themes and the idea of identity crisis being an important issue in modern cinema is very engaging and persuasive.

  10. Josh Platt

    This thread is months old, but in case anyone’s still looking–

    I’ve been doing some reading around on the internet about amnesia and neo-noir, and surprisingly the one stand-out film I think of first doesn’t seem to make anyone’s list: David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

    I’m wondering, are there any classic noir films that feature a *woman* whose memory has been lost? (I’m sure there must be.)

    • Nicola Kahler

      Ooo I haven’t seen that film, must get on to it!!

      I’ve actually thought about this before- but I can’t think of any titles. I guess it’s because in noir film the identity crisis tends to be a defining factor of the MALE protagonist, so neo noir tends to reflect this. But as this new genre plays around with noir conventions, you’d think someone would have explored the concept?

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