Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
We only get glimpses of Leonard's ordinary world in the form of brief memories of his wife. They are warmly colored and seem very happy…and very much a thing of the past.
Call To Adventure
Leonard's wife is raped and murdered by two junkies that break into his house. Leonard kills one of them but the other escapes, leaving him with brain damage. Leonard must go after this man, who the police believe does not exist, and bring him to justice.
Yeesh. That's not our favorite kind of adventure.
Refusal Of The Call
But Leonard suffers from anterograde amnesia, which makes forming new memories, let alone tracking down and killing a random individual, very difficult. Without a system, Leonard is prone to repeat the same mistakes over and over.
Meeting The Mentor
Then Leonard meets his mentor: himself.
Leonard's past helps guide him in to the future. From our perspective, this meeting comes in the early black and white scenes where Leonard wakes up and notices his tattoo. He does exactly what they direct him to do.
Crossing The Threshold
With his photographs and tattoos to guide him, Leonard ventures outside of his hotel room and into the world, ready to search for his wife's killer once more.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Many of Leonard's initial tests are actually antecedent action. A part of Sammy's story is Leonard's own. During this portion of his life, he tries to navigate the world with his condition and is unsuccessful. He ultimately buries these experiences in a partly fictional story he tells himself.
These lies only further his inability to make allies and identify enemies in the present.
Approach To The Inmost Cave
Leonard meets Teddy, who convinces him to go after John G. By this time in the film, we're well aware of Teddy's treachery, but Leonard is none the wiser, believing, once again, they have actually found his wife's killer.
Leonard kills Jimmy Grantz, but realizes that he isn't the right John G…and that Teddy has been using him this whole time. He writes "do not trust" on Teddy's picture but that's all he can do before his memory is gone once again.
Reward (Seizing The Sword)
Leonard's reward is control over his own life. Know that his past self has finally caught on to Teddy's games, but his present self is wary of what Teddy's trying to do.
The Road Back
This space between Ordeal and Resurrection actually takes up the majority of the movie.
Leonard has to continue to decide who to trust as he attempts and fails to navigate the lies of Teddy, Natalie, and even his own. Leonard not only finds out his past self has lied to his future self, but decides to repeat this process and falsely accuse Teddy as being his John G. so that his future self can kill him.
Leonard's lie works, and he finds himself alone with Teddy in the abandoned house. Leonard shoots Teddy and puts an end to his continual searching for his wife's victim. He finally overcomes the man who has been using him and lying to him, although the audience is left to question whether this death is morally justified in the world of the film.
Return With The Elixir
While Leonard in the past has refused peace, this time Leonard chooses to end his eternal search for his wife's dead killer by naming Teddy as his final kill.
Maybe now he can finally get that "I've Done It" tattoo and move on to other, less violent things.