Going into Tenet, I was most expecting it to mirror one of writer/director Christopher Nolan’s earlier efforts: Inception. Tenet has been marketed as a sort of James Bond-ish thriller with some complicated time warping elements mixed in, which is pretty much how I’ve (favorably) thought of Inception for all these years. But to my surprise, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, Tenet feels a lot more like an even earlier Nolan film: Memento.
Tenet stars John David Washington as The Protagonist, an unnamed government agent working on an overseas strike team on a mission that goes wrong. The Protagonist is captured and tortured, but after refusing to give up his organization or colleagues, he is eventually recovered and rewarded for his loyalty with a promotion and a secret: Tenet. What is Tenet? It’s an organization that operates in the shadows, he’s told, and it’s a word that can open doors, but his handler can offer little more. His first objective is to meet with a weapons analyst for the organization, who introduces the film’s central idea: Tenet has been recovering bullets and weapons that have had their entropy reversed. This means the bullets appear, to us, to move backwards. How is this possible? Someone from the future has figured out a way to reverse these objects and send them backwards to us. Which begs the question: Who or what else are they sending backwards, and why?
To uncover more clues, The Protagonist starts a globetrotting journey, with a little help from a referred colleague, Neil (Robert Pattinson). The film’s first 30 minutes or so focuses on a chain of events that eventually leads him to an arms dealer named Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and his estranged wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debecki). The details of these events and the following 30 minutes play out like a typical Bond movie, with The Protagonist getting closer to Kat in order to glean information about Sator and how he is involved with Tenet. About halfway through the film, the timey-wimey elements start to pick up, and talking about anything after that point feels like a spoiler landmine.
At a broad level, the thematic underpinnings of Tenet are some of the most interesting Nolan has ever tackled. It examines the way point of view shapes our own narratives and experiences, and how humanity’s will to survive and to thrive – not as a collective species, but specifically the people we know and love in the here and now – is at once one of our biggest strengths and weaknesses. In some ways it stands as a thematic partner to Interstellar, which examines humanity’s will to continue as a species, regardless of the personal cost.
As far as performances go, everyone is firing on all cylinders, particularly Branagh. The film’s lead trio of Pattinson, Debecki, and Washington have a natural and easy chemistry that helps disarm some of the more difficult moments in Tenet, and the warmth they bring to the roles helps fill in the very broad shape of characters they’re working with on paper.
But Tenet is not without flaws. Nolan is one of my favorite directors, so I’ll preface this by saying that a mixed Nolan film is often higher on my list than a middle of the road film from anyone else. Tenet is an incredibly convoluted and difficult film: it contains many of the director’s trademarks, but to the extreme, which in some ways makes it feel more like work than play. For better or worse it’s the most Nolan movie one could conceive of, filled with unintelligible but seemingly important dialogue, thinly sketched characters, mind-blowing action sequences, and ideas that feel like they’ve been seen 1,000 times before but still manage to feel one-of-a-kind when played out on his own terms.
Difficult can mean different things for different people, and in some ways, as a friend pointed out to me, Nolan is given less latitude than more experimental or auteur directors along the lines of David Lynch and David Cronenberg simply because his films have always had a more broad appeal to start with. Nolan has an uncanny ability to make big, bold spectacles feel smart while still feeling incredibly grounded, and with Tenet, he’s officially moved away from the ‘grounded’ part of his blockbusters. I wouldn’t recommend a Cronenberg film to just anybody, while I’d recommend an Inception or Interstellar to just about anyone – they’re crowd-pleasers. I don’t expect Tenet will be hailed as a crowd-pleaser. It’s more of a head-scratcher.
In many ways it’s one of the most frustrating films I’ve seen in a long time, in part because a bit more clarity, rules, and world-building could have gone a long way in helping the end product match its own ambition. The ideas feel out of reach more due to execution than an impregnable, Lynchian vision. These issues reach a peak in the film’s third act, where what’s meant to be one of the most visually exciting climaxes falls flat. But it’s also a film I’ve been thinking out for hours after leaving the theater, a puzzle I’m still trying to unravel, partially because so many of the most interesting thematic elements are lurking beneath the surface, buried under mechanical questions about how we got from point A to point B. For me, so far, the only signature Nolan move that Tenet lacks is the moment where all of the pieces clicks into place in a satisfying or cathartic way, which is a moment I’m still searching for after a first viewing. But is that the intent?
Several characters in Tenet reference a temporal pincer move, which is a variation on the military strategy known as a pincer move, in which forces attack the enemy from both sides. In the case of the temporal iteration, a force is attacked from two sides of time using the reverse entropy described above. A person can go through an event, garner information about it, and then move through that same event, but inverted, with the extra knowledge she picked up the first time. It’s hard not to think that Tenet is telling you exactly how it needs to be watched – via pincer move – with a lot of confusion and chaos the first time around, hopefully illuminating your knowledge and approach on a second pass. Perhaps, like Memento, it’s a movie that you can enjoy differently a second time with a completely fresh perspective, armed with the knowledge from your first pass. Or maybe not. But I’m game for a second watch, if nothing else.