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Review: ‘Tenet’ Is [REDACTED] [REDACTED]

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 ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, looms larger than the rest. What links Nolan’s latest film ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, beyond its massive physical scale, laboriously choreographed action, and gazillion-dollar studio sheen, is ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎. Ironically enough, one line delivered ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ comes through perfectly: ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ 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.

“◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎,” 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 ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, if Tenet is about anything of consequence, it’s ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎.

As far as the people wearing those well-ironed suits, Tenet boasts a roster of performers ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎. The list includes John David Washington as ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ referred to, cheekily and often, as “Protagonist;” Elizabeth Debicki as ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎; and Pattinson, whose performance as ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ marks him as ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎—just like ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎.

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 ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎. In its ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ opening set piece, ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎; to follow along, you’ve got to stay alert.

Protagonist’s own rude awakening ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎—the first of several superlatively sutured shoot-outs courtesy of editor Jennifer Lame—serves as Tenet’s ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎. After learning that ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ was ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, our hero is ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ (◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎) about ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ looking to avert ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎. The danger, he’s told, has to do with something called “◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎,” 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 ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎.

As it turns out—and this is not a spoiler, but an opinion—Tenet’s most vivid and imaginative images are ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎. ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ evokes both ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ of Inception and the ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ of The Matrix but in a ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ style; a glimpse of a ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ strikes a note of ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎. Not that it’s not impressive to watch ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎—◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎—◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, but as is often the case when Nolan works on a gargantuan scale, the pumped-up dimensions of the action ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎. 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 ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎.

To continue with this analogy, truly great thrillers have a checkmate moment, and Tenet does not. If anything, the fun is ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎—◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎—◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎. It’s disappointing that a movie with the wit to more or less open with ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ can’t think of anything more to do with such a nervy, resourceful actress than ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎. (◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎.)

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 ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ 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.)

◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, Branagh’s Sator is essentially a ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, and perhaps the most sympathetic way to frame Tenet is as ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎—filtered, naturally, through an ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼◼︎︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼◼︎︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎. One of Tenet’s most unfortunate flaws is that ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎. And so its characters say lots of things about ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, at which point viewers with limited tolerance ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎—◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎—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 ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎.

Speaking of which, Tenet’s running visual motif of ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, even if it’s more a matter of coincidence than genuine prescience. (Either that or this screenplay that’s at least partially about ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ 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 ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎—◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ 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 ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎—a simple, devastating idea bristling around the edges of ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎. 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 ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎.

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 ◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎. 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 ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎, ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎. Trying to understand a movie is one thing, but trying to feel it is another. It’s still hard to say whether Tenet is ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎ ◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎◼︎.

For reasons of utmost importance and security, details in this article have been redacted. In order to see the details unredacted—and to finally learn, or try to learn, what Tenet is about—click here (at your own risk).

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.