Editors Note: This film was seen in a country where it was safe to do so. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the massive number of cases still ongoing in the United States, health professionals have recommended people do not go to the movies, as theaters are a potential hotspot for the spread. Please consider the health risks before going to see any film in theaters.
Christopher Nolan’s delirious new film delivers enough sound and fury to make up for the gaping hole that is 2020’s blockbuster season
Nearly every major director, or auteur, if you will, hits a point where their movies become weird and insular, alienating all but their most hardcore fans. That’s how you get Michael Mann going from an evergreen 170-minute cop drama starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino to a decidedly un-evergreen 134-minute cop drama about Go-Fast Boats where at least 70% of the dialogue is incomprehensible jargon. Or Tony Scott going from making a fun movie about fighter jets that your dad likes to Domino, a movie far too complicated to explain in this lede, but rest assured it’s absolutely wild.
Some directors, of course, manage to avoid this trap. Take Spielberg for instance, whose weirdest movie of the last ten years of his career is probably The Adventures of Tintin, which is still very clearly a movie made by a man who knows his audience and wants to please it. On the face of things, you might think Christopher Nolan would hew closer to Spielberg than to Scott or Mann. After all, we’re talking the man whose ostensible “one for me” movies were just as big a hits as his “one for them” movies. A man who ended a 170-minute long space odyssey with Matthew McConaughey being trapped in the metaphysical spaces between a bookshelf and still didn’t lose the favor of America’s (and the world at large’s) dads, moms, aunts and uncles.
Enter Tenet, easily Nolan’s biggest swing yet and the one that may very well propel him out of the mainstream and into the realm of the Vulgar Auteur. Preceded by an astonishingly vague marketing campaign, that really only told you that the film is a spy thriller of some sort and that it would be circular in some way, 2020’s biggest (for a variety of unpleasant reasons I would rather just not get into) summer blockbuster bursts into theaters in a frenzy of exposition, extremely loud noises, explosions and some more exposition.
From minute one, a prologue centered on The Protagonist 1 (John David Washington) infiltrating a squad of Russian terrorists who are undertaking a siege of a Kiev opera house, Nolan hits you over the head with sound and fury, assisted by Ludwig Goransson’s ballistic, Daft-Punk-on-crack score. It takes about ten minutes until your senses get their first chance to rest, when the mission goes awry and The Protagonist is captured and tortured, until he takes a cyanide pill and dies. Or at least, that’s what he thinks, as he then awakens on a boat, where an operative of some sort of government agency informs him that he’s passed a test by swallowing the fake cyanide pill and is now a part of a top secret mission to put a stop to a cold war so nebulous that “to know what it is would be to lose”. His only piece of intel a single word: tenet.
Hard cut to: The Protagonist visiting a scientist (In Bruges’ Clémence Poésy ) who informs him that a nefarious force from the future is sending objects into our timeline that have had their entropy inverted. Think that’s a nonsense sentence? Get ready to hear it a lot. What it basically means is that these objects are on a different timestream than we are. So an inverted bullet moves out of the wall it has been shot in, into The Protagonist’s gun. As both Washington’s character and the audience is still processing that, it’s time for another hard cut: this time to a busy Mumbai street, where The Protagonist seeks entrance into a very well protected mansion. Owned by who? Why? The answers to these questions eventually arrive, but you have to be patient to receive them. And once you do, but before you’ve processed the information, it’s hard cut time again.
So the first act of Tenet keeps going for a good 45 minutes. Washington wanders around beautiful locales or coolly designed laboratories, where interesting actors (including but not limited to, Yesterday’s Hamish Patel, Bollywood legend Dimple Kapadia and Sir Michael Caine) deliver information that’s, to put it lightly, somewhat difficult to parse. For a certain breed of movie-goer, the kind that loves movies like the ones mentioned in the opening paragraph, this section is going to be pure heaven. If you love getting lost in flowery spy movie dialogue (“We live in a twilight world and there are no friends at dusk”) and watching handsome people be handsome in stunningly shot backdrops where you can see practically the entire horizon in the back of every frame, you are going to love Tenet. If you don’t, strap in, it’s going to be a long ride.
A somewhat-easy-to-follow plot does eventually emerge. Someone is communicating with the future to carry out their nefarious plot. Said someone is rather quickly revealed to be Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh, rocking the house with big Red Sparrow energy), who was also involved in the Kiev siege. The Protagonist needs to get close to him via his long-suffering, abused wife, auction house employee, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), which he intends to do by offering her to destroy the one piece of leverage Sator holds over her, a forged Goya painting Sator bought that she personally authenticated. Doing that necessitates an expository deep dive into airport policies and assistance from Neil (Robert Pattinson), a mysterious operative who becomes The Protagonist’s closest ally. Though this isn’t a film with much room for character moments or other moments of levity, Washington and Pattinson make for an alluring pair of buddy spies, with the latter almost effortlessly landing the one big emotional beat the movie allows him in the final act.
Nolan’s trying to pull a trick he’s pulled off before, most notably in Inception. Frontload the exposition so the audience clearly understands the high-concept premise, so the second half of the movie can just be a non-stop fireworks factory of exciting and engaging setpieces. The one problem there is that the inversion mechanic is a lot more nebulous than Inception’s various dream layers. Even though we hear it explained many times, what exactly inversion means doesn’t really click until you see it fully play out on screen, in a lengthy end-of-second-act action scene that brings to mind the aforementioned Tony Scott’s unheralded (and unhinged) masterpiece Déja Vu. What doesn’t help matters is that said scene comes after the film’s final real exposition scene, which, while it’s sandwiched between two very exciting action sequences, is so long and confusing it’s not hard to imagine large swathes of the audience completely tuning out of the movie.
Eventually, Tenet comes to a close with a setpiece so megalomaniac and outsized it puts Nolan’s last three movies combined to shame. In the interest of avoiding spoilers it’s impossible to get into specifics, but it’s big, loud, absolutely beautiful and terminally confusing on a moment to moment basis. It’s maybe the best thing Nolan has ever directed, though it wouldn’t be too hard to mount a case that it might be the worst either, which is basically the whole movie in a nutshell. It’s the kind of movie that will split opinion on an admittedly already divisive filmmaker even more.
I haven’t even fully gotten into the vulgar auteurist angle of it all yet, which is hard to do as it necessitates diving into the plot more fully,2 but rest assured Nolan takes some absurdly big swings, including him taking one of his permanent plot fixations to a logical endpoint and a direct quotation of a canonical masterpiece that might either stand the test of time as one of Nolan’s most powerful moments, or the moment he finally lost it. Given the fractured state of the film industry at the moment, Tenet may be hard to qualify as one of 2020’s best movies, but it is absolutely one of the most movies of the year. A bona fide big screen epic that’s stuffed with enough ideas, concepts and brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrraaaam’s for three movies, films like this don’t come around that often anymore and, for that alone, Tenet is something to cherish.