.Tenet :drow a si noitseuq taht ot rewsna ehT “?ti kcuf” dias naloN rehpotsirhC fi tahW
If you are looking for an answer to the question, “Is Tenet worth the risk of going to a theater right now?,” I believe we both already know that answer:
Tenet is the latest film from dorm room poster icon Christopher Nolan, a rare combination of auteur filmmaker who also did contemporary crime thriller Batman movies once, so now he’s a brand who can get an original script that costs more than $50M to actually be greenlit in the day of reboots, sequels, cinematic universes, and the like. But much like the plot of this movie, Nolan has inverted his way into becoming his own version of all of those aforementioned things with Tenet.
True to form, this film is light on character, and it double fists its confusing plot like a sophomore fraternity pledge who is in way over their head with a 24 pack of Keystone Light. That might seem dramatic on first read, but I’d ask you first to consider our main character, portrayed by John David Washington. What is his name you ask?
Protagonist. Nope, I’m not being a smartass here. But at least it’s not a stoic white guy in a nice suit who misses his dead wife?
The title of Protagonist does have a role in the story, but it feels just a little too on the nose right? But regardless, The Protagonist is a vehicle for the plot in more ways than one, and I wish I could tell you what that means, but that would be a spoiler. And the truth is, it is very hard to talk about the plot of this movie because most of it has been kept hidden in the marketing. The one thing you should know if you’ve seen any of the trailers is that time is being somehow inverted in an objects entropy, meaning two similar objects or people could be moving both forward and backward through time in the same exact three dimensional space.
So to skip over the big picture stuff for spoilers sake, Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, and Kenneth Branagh headline a surprisingly small cast of key players for a Nolan film, but all of them are excellent here. When you can understand them… Branagh and his soft, but deep and brooding Russian accent were a particular highlight. Debicki brings the films emotional center and was a highlight for me throughout, as I’ve never seen her in a starring role before.
The pacing of the 2 hours and 40 minutes that Nolan has laid out is very all over the place. The first act especially breezes through with minimal exposition, telling the Protagonist/audience surrogate at one point “Don’t try to understand” how time inversion actually works. Dialogue is quick, the editing is quick, locations change at the drop of a pin, and the sound mixing yet again buries the actors dialogue under all sound effects and the score. People who are familiar with Nolan’s work should be able to easily pick up on certain techniques he uses very frequently to gather some hidden information, despite what information is currently being withheld from the Protagonist. It feels like the film purposefully rushes through its opening 40 minutes in an attempt to cover up how telegraphed most of the information really ends up being by throwing so much at you very quickly that it seems like it is hoping you won’t notice.
But by the end of the uneven journey to get there over miles of plot and twists, the motivations of our villain are revealed to be very simple and almost morbidly believable in 2020. These motivations drive home the messaging of the film in a effective and relatable way, particularly because Nolan is treading ground that he has already previously walked in his last decade of film. The action setpieces in the third act are also vintage Nolan, and we all know how much the man loves fancy cameras. He’s one of the best modern directors working today, he knows how to stage a setpiece crosscut, that’s for sure. What it might lack in certain areas may be made up by the constant envelope pushing of Nolan. There are hallway fights, explosions, environmental destruction and traversal in reverse throughout that while never matching say the hallway fight of Inception, they are of course well executed. The man knows how to do the work.
Tenet is not Christopher Nolan’s best movie by a long shot. It’s also not a bad movie by any means, it just feels like a purposefully inaccessible one, withholding information from the audience’s perspective simply for reveals that probably would have had as much drama if not kept hidden. But if you can hang through the very uneven first two acts, the end brings a satisfying, grounded message that previous work like Interstellar may have gone too broad with. Christopher Nolan is seen by many as the answer to the blockbuster machine, but I’d argue this film cements Nolan’s status as his own version of the blockbuster. If you know his work, you already know if you’re on board with this film, and you should already know what to expect, hopefully. And your mileage may vary, depending on how much redundancy Nolan can naturally disguise from his audiences perspective, as well as how much you can individually stomach.