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UNREDACTED: ‘Tenet’ Is Classic Nolan—Pristine, Demanding, and Convoluted

If you can manage to understand what the characters of ‘Tenet’ are saying, only then can you begin to attempt to figure out what they mean

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

This review was filed from Toronto, where the writer attended a socially distanced press screening; Tenet opens in wide release in Canada on August 26, and on September 3 in some cities in the United States.


“It’s like they’re competing to see who’s the least understandable,” quips Steve Coogan during The Trip to Italy about the cast members of The Dark Knight Rises before launching into a muffled impersonation of Tom Hardy as Bane. His fellow impressionist Rob Brydon follows by flawlessly mocking Christian Bale’s gravelly Batman voice before defending it with a bit of comic book logic: It’s meant, he says, to preserve the Caped Crusader’s “cloak of anonymity.”

Of all the metaphysical mysteries in Tenet, the question of which middle-school elocution teacher once traumatized its director, Christopher Nolan, looms larger than the rest. What links Nolan’s latest film to The Dark Knight Rises, beyond its massive physical scale, laboriously choreographed action, and gazillion-dollar studio sheen, is the sheer inaudibility of its dialogue, whether delivered through masks, over walkie talkies, or in the middle of shoot-outs. Ironically enough, one line delivered through a mask, over a walkie talkie, and in the middle of a shoot-out comes through perfectly: Robert Pattinson shouting desperately, “It’s not clear!” This is the funniest line in the movie. It’s also the closest thing that Nolan’s work has to a motto these days.

“Don’t try to understand it, just feel it,” advises a scientist early on in Tenet, a piece of advice that feels like a mission statement. Of all the turn-of-the-millennium indie featherweights who’ve become tentpole-movie titans, Nolan is the most prone to daredevil leaps of faith in his own showmanship, as well as his audience’s cognitive abilities. He hinges his epics on impossibly complex premises—teleportation; subconscious espionage; spelunking through black holes—and offers as compensation the kind of check-your-brains-at-the-door spectacle associated with less cerebral moviemakers.

By successfully leveraging these two imperatives against one another, Nolan has become a brand-name filmmaker—albeit one whose po-faced professionalism skirts self-parody. His movies are handsome and formal. They have the energy of a guy who not only insists on directing in a suit and tie but also on wearing a suit to the 2002 MTV Movie Awards, and whose kids call him Reynolds Woodcock when he’s being mean. It’s easy to make fun of Nolan, but no matter how tricked-up or gimmicky his movies can be, they’re always recognizably personal in their way. In lieu of a cloak of anonymity, he wears his ambitions and themes on his sleeve. It goes without saying those sleeves are perfectly tailored; as Jessica Kiang has already observed in The New York Times, if Tenet is about anything of consequence, it’s the beauty of an uncreased suit.

As far as the people wearing those well-ironed suits, Tenet boasts a roster of performers at the top of their game. The list includes John David Washington as a special-ops-trained protagonist referred to, cheekily and often, as “Protagonist;” Elizabeth Debicki as the emotionally corroded trophy wife of the vicious foreign arms dealer whom Protagonist must first haggle with and then battle; and Pattinson, whose performance as an elegantly attired off-the-grid fixer who gets off on staging superficially chaotic yet precisely engineered sleight-of-hand antics marks him as a doppelgänger for his director—just like Leonardo DiCaprio was in Inception, the Nolan film that Tenet most resembles at a glance.

In Inception, the high concept of a virtuoso freelance dreamweaver mind-fucking corporate titans for the highest bidder served as a workable abstract metaphor for the director’s own attempt to get into viewers’ heads; it traced a link between subconscious and cinematic realms that gave the film a heady, theoretical texture even when it was just suave lads having zero-gravity fistfights. Tenet isn’t so much dreamy as doomy, arraying its well-dressed heroes against an exterior threat. In its wonderful opening set piece, an opera house full of sleeping-gassed civilians dozes obliviously while armed mercenaries blast bullets all around, a hint that this time around there’s nothing to see with eyes wide shut; to follow along, you’ve got to stay alert.

Protagonist’s own rude awakening in the aftermath of the opera house raid—the first of several superlatively sutured shoot-outs courtesy of editor Jennifer Lame—serves as Tenet’s through-the-looking-glass moment. After learning that the cyanide pill he’d swallowed under torture by enemy agents was a dud designed to test his loyalty, our hero is given some cryptic exposition (via the always welcome Martin Donovan) about the key role he’s been scouted for by parties unknown looking to avert an apocalyptic scenario. The danger, he’s told, has to do with something called “inverted time,” a phenomenon which is explained on several occasions over the course of the film, to varying degrees of basic coherence by actors subject to variously effective levels of sound mixing.

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: Tenet’s title and original release date are of course both palindromes, and this is the guy who pioneered his own private be-kind-rewind aesthetic in Memento (still brilliant after all these years, by the way). What’s harder to talk around, though, are the myriad ways that Nolan develops his setup, both in terms of storytelling choices and the visualization of temporal disruption.

As it turns out—and this is not a spoiler, but an opinion—Tenet’s most vivid and imaginative images are almost all small-scale. A shell casing levitating above a laboratory table evokes both the spinning top of Inception and the acrobatic bullet trajectories of The Matrix but in a disarmingly drab, realist style; a glimpse of a cracked rearview mirror attached to an otherwise pristine luxury car strikes a note of off-kilter foreboding, a shivery anticipation for something that’s already happened. Not that it’s not impressive to watch large vehicles crash into—and through—gigantic and supremely flammable structures, but as is often the case when Nolan works on a gargantuan scale, the pumped-up dimensions of the action paradoxically diminish its impact. We end up wondering how Nolan did something (or how much it must have cost) rather than caring about what’s happening, or to whom. It’s one thing to burden your hero with the symbolic moniker of “Protagonist;” it’s another to purposefully cultivate an atmosphere of chilly detachment that makes it hard to relate to an actor as attractive and charismatic as Washington as anything but a piece on a chessboard.

To continue with this analogy, truly great thrillers have a checkmate moment, and Tenet does not. If anything, the fun is frontloaded, peaking in terms of recognizably Nolanesque pleasure during Washington’s first-act exposition-dump lunch meeting with none other than Michael Caine—the ruling authority of the Nolan-verse, and as always, an old pro—and extending through his early flirtations with Debicki’s Kat, who’s granted more depth, agency, and humor than her director’s previous heroines until the moment that she isn’t. It’s disappointing that a movie with the wit to more or less open with its handsome, alpha-male lead tied silent-movie-style to some railroad tracks can’t think of anything more to do with such a nervy, resourceful actress than reduce her to a semiconscious damsel in distress. (Though, maybe it’s not surprising coming from a filmmaker with a Dead Wife problem.)

It doesn’t help that whenever she’s not with Washington, Debicki is acting opposite one of the all-time scenery chewers in Kenneth Branagh, whose borscht-coated Ukrainian accent is an example of Nolan letting his pet stars go off leash. (Branagh returned the indulgence by saying in interviews that Tenet had “reinvented the wheel,” a compliment which at least qualifies Nolan for a promotion at Hudsucker Industries.)

Hot-tempered, impossibly wealthy, and armed with a Chernobyl-sized chip on his shoulder, Branagh’s Sator is essentially a Bond villain, and perhaps the most sympathetic way to frame Tenet is as Nolan’s stab at a 007 entry—filtered, naturally, through an inescapable fixation on structural gamesmanship that wouldn’t fit in Bond’s linear universe. One of Tenet’s most unfortunate flaws is that instead of leaning into its strengths as a glossy, globe-trotting thriller, it’s also determined to say something about fate and free will. And so its characters say lots of things about fate and free will, at which point viewers with limited tolerance for philosophical pontificating—especially when there are other things Nolan could double down on, like having John David Washington calmly shave a henchman’s face with a cheese grater—may find themselves grateful for the faulty sound mixing. At his best, as in his coauthored screenplays (with brother Jonathan) for Memento and The Prestige, Nolan can conjure up stylized, noir-ish situations and one-liners; when he’s off his game, the lousiness of the dialogue can overpower even his most striking imagery.

Speaking of which, Tenet’s running visual motif of oxygen masks has a potency in the surrounding COVID context that can’t be denied, even if it’s more a matter of coincidence than genuine prescience. (Either that or this screenplay that’s at least partially about the possibility of parties communicating across giant swaths of time was actually written at some point in the future.) The repeated head-on shots of Washington shivering or spasming behind a clear plastic breathing apparatus have a clammy intensity that can’t help but overwhelm whatever else is going on, and there are other weirdly loaded, anxious images—including an unmistakable and strangely ambivalent allusion to 9/11—that work in purely visceral, graphic terms. The same goes for the film’s barely submerged thesis, tied less to theories of time travel than realpolitik, that planet-threatening conflict is its own sort of circular, recursive inevitability—a simple, devastating idea bristling around the edges of Tenet’s convoluted plotline. In Inception, the sight of rival factions clashing in a snowy void was something straight out of a first-person shooter video game. In Tenet, the same configuration is calibrated not for excitement, but fatigue and even tragedy, an evocation of an eternal struggle where the difficulty of discerning the combatants or their motivations is arguably part of the point.

Toward the end of Tenet, I found myself thinking of the great French filmmaker Chris Marker’s 1962 short film La Jetée, in which a survivor of nuclear holocaust is projected back to a moment before zero hour in an attempt to find some retrospective source of salvation. Instead, he finds romance with a woman who suspects but does not fully understand his plight as a man out of time. Assembled entirely out of still photographs and containing no spoken dialogue in addition to its poetic voice-over narration, La Jetée is a masterpiece in miniature, but its influence has been huge, leaving a mark on everything from The Terminator to 12 Monkeys to Tenet, which contains a moment of homage that only serves to enlarge the earlier work’s greatness by comparison. At the end of La Jetée, Marker succeeds in collapsing and converging parallel timelines with the sudden, startling clarity of death itself—an existential checkmate move if there ever was one. At the end of Tenet, the suggestion is that the game continues, only the rules and the stakes never really come into focus. Trying to understand a movie is one thing, but trying to feel it is another. It’s still hard to say whether Tenet is really worth the effort.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.