If there’s one thing that goes unquestioned, director Christopher Nolan’s films are events that command attention. He clouds his projects in secrecy and uses that mystery to whet the appetites of eager filmgoers the world over. In addition, Nolan makes films which require your attention because you can quickly get lost if you don’t keep up.
Tenet, based on an original script from Nolan, is his latest mindbender to include a simple storyline, supported by confounding concepts designed to wow his audience.
Starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Cleménce Poésy, Himesh Patel, Dimple Kapadia, Fiona Dourif, Michael Caine and Kenneth Branagh, Tenet is an espionage thriller where the fate of the world is at stake.
Washington, known only as the Protagonist, is a CIA agent tasked with stopping arms dealer Andrei Sator (Branagh) from ending the world. The Protagonist uses Sator’s estranged wife, Kat (Debicki), and is aided by Neil (Pattinson) and Mahir (Patel), to get close to the Russian. They realize Sator is not only dangerous, but he’s working with a clandestine organization and unnatural forces. Further complicating matters inversion, a concept the Protagonist recently learned about which allows things to move backward through time. There’s a good chance inversion is directly related to Sator and his affiliates, so the stakes couldn't be higher.
Nolan apparently brainstormed Tenet for the last 20 years, but really focused on the script within the last six or seven (during that time he released Interstellar and Dunkirk, so maybe he was a little busy). Considering his complex ideas, finishing a filmable screenplay would understandably require time. In turn, audiences also will need time to simply wrap their heads around Nolan’s concepts. But let’s examine one portion of the concept which made it into the trailers – when the Protagonist caught bullets with his gun.
While holding the gun, the Protagonist stands a few feet from a stone slab while bullets fly backwards from the slab and into the chamber. “You’re not shooting the bullet. You’re catching it,” can be heard from Barbara (Poésy), as she explains inversion. At first glance, the footage was seemingly shot normally, then played in reverse – the thought alone will flip everything on its head. It feels like Nolan took Wachowskis’ “bullet time” concept from The Matrix and reapplied it in a more “practical” way. It makes for some exciting action scenes, the likes of which haven’ been seen before. The Protagonist replies with an appropriate, “Whoa,” just like Neo (Keanu Reeves) did. It looks amazing, if not initially odd (and even preposterous), and may go down as a revolutionary filming technique if Tenet is successful. Whoa, indeed.
Performances from the entire cast is impressive, although the best turns come from Debicki and Pattinson. In a feature where many, if not all, the characters are impassive, Debicki provides the most of Tenet's emotion since Kay is an unhappy wife who’s abused and owned by her cold husband. While Pattinson, who many may forget is a Londoner, takes full advantage of his accent to cleverly incorporate Michael Caine’s Alfred (in the Dark Knight Trilogy) and Tom Hardy’s Eames (in Inception) into a uniquely interesting Neil. Pattinson provides some of the scant humor Tenet dishes out, but he also gives Neil depth. In short, he’s fantastic and he’ll be as such playing Bruce Wayne/Batman in 2021’s The Batman.
Washington is dashing, having built upon his memorable performance in 2018’s BlacKkKlansman and learning from one of acting’s masters, his father Denzel. The Protagonist is light on emotion, though I suspect that’s what Nolan intended. Regardless, Washington is charming and proves he can be a leading man.
Made on a rumored budget of nearly $225 million and delivered with a 150-minute running time (despite that, its pace is brisk), Tenet is Christopher Nolan’s boldest and most convoluted film to date. To boot, the sound editing is not the greatest – Ludwig Goransson’s score drowns out a lot of dialogue. But the action, because of the inversion concept, is top-shelf – some of the best Nolan’s done. Also, the visuals are gorgeous, thanks to cinematographer (and frequent Nolan-collaborator) Hoyte van Hoytema, who filmed at lush locations in Denmark, Estonia, India, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States. In this case, a confounding puzzle is easier to attempt solving when it arrives in a pretty package.
Be warned – Tenet is confusing to the point of frustration and it must be seen multiple times to grasp Nolan’s concepts. Many don't have that kind of patience for a movie, which means Tenet might be too intricate to enjoy. That complexity, though, is what partially draws audiences to his films in the first place.
Nolan once again swung for the fences and, although Tenet may not be a clear home run, it might still be an inside-the-park homer. The latter is typically more entertaining than the former – and idea not lost on Nolan. Providing the entertainment is something the filmmaker has mastered, backwards and forwards.
4 stars out of 5