Upon more study I believe we can say for sure that the “goofs and clues,” along with the “games” that the director Christopher Nolan plays on the viewers, are more of a distraction that key parts of the movie. Having said that they are a fun distraction.
The reason they are a distraction is that they don’t do anything to help us understand the movie. It’s kind of like looking at polling results when you are trying to figure out whom to vote for for President. It’s fun seeing candidates go up and down, but pretty useless as an indication of which candidate will make the best President.
The clearest demonstration that these goofs, clues, and games aren’t helpful concerns the license plate number of Teddy’s car. This license plate is absolutely essential to the plot. When Leonard sees that the DMV record of the license plate number is the same as the “fact” tattooed on his arm Leonard is convinced that Teddy (John Gammel) is the real John G. That’s when he write on the back of Teddy’s photo, “He is the one” “Kill him”.
But we know of course that Gammel is not the John G. who “murdered” Leonard’s wife. He is some guy, perhaps a bad cop, who has been manipulating Leonard to kill for his, Teddy’s own advantage. The reason why the tattoo “has” that license plate number is that Leonard, angry at Teddy for having mocked him and his memories in the scene after Jimmy is killed, copies that number on his paper and gets it tattooed on his arm, because he wants to make Teddy “his next John G.” In other words Leonard purposefully manipulates the facts and exploits his own memory problems because know he won’t remember him setting Teddy up this way.
So, the license plate number is an absolutely central element of the plot.
We get two very clear camera shots of the license plate. At the deserted place where Jimmy was killed it reads, that is the camera actually shows, SG13 7IU. The key is the next to last character. At the deserted building it is clearly and I, a capital letter.
But the other time we can a crystal clear view of it is when Teddy and Leonard are walking out of Dodd’s motel to chase Dodd out of town. At that time the camera clearly shows the license to be SG13 71U. The second to last character is the number 1.
Now there is absolutely no way that this can be a goof. There are positively two different license plates so Nolan had to have them purposefully made to be different.
So it is not a goof. Can it be a clue? Well, what difference does it make in the outcome of the movie. This is the key point: it makes absolutely no difference, the movie’s plot would have come out the same had there only been one license plate.
But Nolan is not content just to play with us with these two camera shots. He has more tricks up his sleeve.
At the deserted building, sitting in his car, Leonard takes out a piece of paper and writes down a fact (for a future tattoo). What does he write down, and I or a 1? Answer: neither. He makes a vertical line ⎜. Of course this is ambiguous. It could be an I or a 1, and it isn’t clear if Leonard has done this out of carelessness or what.
But Nolan is not through playing games with us.
In the tattoo parlor the lady who makes the tattoo, interprets the vertical line as a 1. So the “Fact” tattoo, differs from what Leonard saw when he was purposefully manipulating himself to kill Teddy later.
But Nolan doesn’t stop there. The license plate appears again in the DMV record that Natalie gives Leonard. What does it say? SG13 7IU. With the capital I. So that fact on Leonard’s arm disagrees with the DMV record. So the license plate does not convincingly implicate Teddy.
But Nolan does not stop there. He goes one step further. He lets us hear Leonard’s thinking as he is comparing the fact and the DMV record. He reads the DMV record and says “7IU” and then he looks at his arm and says “7IU”. In other words he reads his arm wrong.
So Nolan has come full circle. He presents us with two different license plate numbers. Makes them a crucial part of the plot, and then makes the difference mean nothing to the outcome.
As my old Philosophy professor used to say: “A difference has to make a difference to be a difference.”
This isn’t a difference, is it a deliberate mind game that Nolan is playing on those of us who get sucked into analyzing each and every goof and clue.
And there are real goofs. The camera crew reflected in the side of Dodd’s SUV.
And there are real clues. The placement of the window in Dodd’s room is different from the outside than from the inside. But this was set up in the dialog between Teddy and Leonard when they were having lunch and talking about memory. “Memory can change the shape of a room”; “memory can change the color of a car”. And sure enough later in the film both these two things happen. This clue tells us not to trust what we see, because Leonard is right about memory being unreliable.
My bottom line. Enjoy the movie for what it is: a great suspense thriller, an experiential trip into the unreliability of memories, a challenge to viewers to figure out a complicated plot presented in a complicated way. And yes, for those who get sucked in, like myself, it is an endless mind game directed by Nolan who puts in clues and has goofs and does so in a way that we can’t really make use of any of them. He might even have showed the reflection of the camera crew in the car on purpose. Just to make sure we can never be sure what any particular thing means.