Christopher Nolan, as much as I respect his work, has never been a filmmaker whose work I was naturally drawn to. His brand is coolly awe-inspiring and cerebral, never wasting a second, and always gravitating around grand ideas beyond the human – on the contrary, I’m drawn to films that stop to smell the roses, more focused on the experience of being human than attempting to look outside of this perspective. This isn’t to say that Nolan is entirely cold; that would be completely unfair, and ignores the heart of works like Interstellar. But this does mean that some of his lofty cinematic ideas come at the cost of more down-to-Earth elements like spending time on characterization or embracing the levity outside of the central thesis. Tenet is a mind-bending, unbelievably impressive film that definitely demands multiple watches, but that alone doesn’t necessarily satisfy me, despite how amazed I often was.
I’ll only reveal as much as the trailer told us: John David Washington (labeled just ‘The Protagonist’) is a spy tasked with preventing ‘something worse’ than a nuclear holocaust, and all we know is that this somehow relates to mysterious objects that have recently appeared with reversed entropy – in short, they travel backward through time. From here, the film presents itself as a puzzle, asking the Protagonist and the viewer alike how it all slots together. Other characters include the ever beautiful Robert Pattinson as Neil, a man more mysterious than his mate-from-down-the-pub name suggests, and Elizabeth Debicki as Kat, the brutalized wife of Kenneth Branagh’s Russian billionaire Sator. Frankly, I probably couldn’t explain the intricacies of the plot if I tried, but I did manage to let the more complex scenes wash over me until they made sense, and I’m grateful that I was able to do this – if you struggle with convoluted plots, you might find Tenet a frustrating experience.
You most likely recognize most of the names in this imposing cast, and every member does do a good job with what they’re given. Washington’s poker face suits his spy persona and Pattinson provides some comic relief, but the real star is Debicki, who brings more intensity to the script than any other cast member dares to. Branagh was, at times, a little too goofy for me as a mustache-twirling Russian villain, but he does have moments where I was genuinely intimidated. At times this lineup reminded me of Welle’s The Lady from Shanghai, particularly the yacht scenes between Washington and Debicki, though perhaps lacking in the complex motivations that make that film so gripping. While Neil’s motivations are made interestingly unclear, the Protagonist’s are about as complicated as his name suggests, and Kat unfortunately falls into the character type of ‘concerned mother’ without much else to back her up, her domestic abuse subplot not going beyond a soap opera level complexity of emotion. Sator’s motivations are chilling, but in contrast to the milquetoast characters, I was left a little cold. As implied at the start, this is my primary issue with the movie: the stakes are high, but the characters mostly just go through the motions for plot purposes, and it made it hard to care when the film reaches its bombastic climax.
Of course, this is a masterfully made film, filled with painstaking detail in both the visuals and the score. The camera glides effortlessly through the brutal action sequences in a way that beautifully showcases the central conceit of the film, and the special effects are some of the most seamless yet creative I’ve seen in the cinema. Similarly, the score is exhilarating, especially when it plays backward, a genius touch that both adds a layer of intrigue and makes the inverse time moments easier to follow. However, an issue that I’ve had with many of Nolan’s films also reared its ugly head – sound mixing that drowns out the scant dialogue. This may be less of an issue in films like The Dark Knight or Dunkirk, which are comparatively easy to follow, but Tenet demands an extremely high level of attention from the viewer, and when you can’t hear half of what’s said over the explosions and Zimmer-esque music cues, it makes working out what’s happening more frustrating than enjoyable.
I realize this review might come off more negative than positive – that’s because I don’t want to spoil the wonderful intricacies of the plot, which were genuinely some of the most well-executed I’ve seen in recent years. It just makes me sad that this could have been a near-perfect movie for me if a little more care was put into the emotional core – the puzzle eventually solves itself, but it’s missing a satisfying click.