Point blank in the head a man shoots another. In flashbacks, each one earlier in time than what we've just seen, the two men's past unfolds. Leonard, as a result of a blow to the head during an assault on his wife, has no short-term memory. He's looking for his wife's killer, compensating for his disability by taking Polaroids, annotating them, and tattooing important facts on his body. We meet the loquacious Teddy and the seductive Natalie (a barmaid who promises to help), and we glimpse Leonard's wife through memories from before the assault. Leonard also talks about Sammy Jankis, a man he knew with a similar condition. Has Leonard found the killer? What's going on?
Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential) and Joe Pantoliano (The Matrix) shine in this absolute stunner of a movie. Memento combines a bold, mind-bending script with compelling action and virtuoso performances. Pearce plays Leonard Shelby, hunting down the man who raped and murdered his wife. The problem is that "the incident" that robbed Leonard of his wife also stole his ability to make new memories. Unable to retain a location, a face, or a new clue on his own, Leonard continues his search with the help of notes, Polaroids, and even homemade tattoos for vital information.
Because of his condition, Leonard essentially lives his life in short, present-tense segments, with no clear idea of what's just happened to him. That's where Memento gets really interesting; the story begins at the end, and the movie jumps backward in 10-minute segments. The suspense of the movie lies not in discovering what happens, but in finding out why it happened. Amazingly, the movie achieves edge-of-your-seat excitement even as it moves backward in time, and it keeps the mind hopping as cause and effect are pieced together.
Pearce captures Leonard perfectly, conveying both the tragic romance of his quest and his wry humor in dealing with his condition. He is bolstered by several excellent supporting players, and the movie is all but stolen from him by Pantoliano, who delivers an amazing performance as Teddy, the guy who may or may not be on his side. Memento has an intriguing structure and even meditations on the nature of perception and meaning of life if you go looking for them, but it also functions just as well as a completely absorbing thriller. It's rare to find a movie this exciting with so much intelligence behind it. --Ali Davis