Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, “Tenet” is a high concept spy thriller that’s technically fascinating and very impressive on the filmmaking side of things- but narratively it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The film is now available for video release, so I finally sat down and gave this highly anticipated one a watch. I have to say, while I’m not really sour on the film, I am merely in a state of confusion about it overall. This is Christopher Nolan’s most jarring film for me to date. The highs are very high, but there are so many questionable story tactics displayed throughout the film that I really do need to see it a second, third, maybe even fourth time to understand it better. Maybe that’s just me, but let’s dive into a discussion about the story at hand first. The first thing that hits you over the head with this film is just how fast the pacing is, it doesn’t stop to let you blink or breath at all before taking off to the next scene. The opening scene takes place in an opera house in Ukraine where the protagonist (John David Washington) is introduced as a CIA agent participating in a raid on the packed music hall, covertly. If you’re wondering why I didn’t name John David Washington’s character, it’s because he has no name, he’s just the protagonist. Things don’t go so well for him as he and his team are captured and our protagonist has his all of his teeth pulled out in a trainyard torture scene before the titlecard arrives. Pretty bad day, even worse as he fights to eat a suicide capsule to avoid giving up his team, and succeeds. At least, he believes he should be dead. It was just a pill that put him in a medically induced coma, a “test” from the agency, and one that he passed. From there he’s given a briefing on his latest mission, to save the world from certain doom. He’s only given two pieces of information, a word, Tenet; and a symbol of interlocking fingers. From there he’s sent on his globe trotting investigation to track down any and all possible leads, starting with a visit with the character who I like to call “the scientist of exposition” (Clémence Poésy).
This curt yet concise scientist then describes the high-concept idea that governs the rest of the film’s logic. She shows the protagonist how to interact with items, in this case bullets, that have been inverted by some future technology sent back in time. She puts it plainly, “you’re not shooting the bullet; you’re catching it”. From there he’s pointed to a powerful arms dealer in India, Priya (Dimple Kapadia). To gain access to her for information on Tenet, the protagonist is aided by an inside man with knowledge on the international crime market, Neil (Robert Pattinson). Together they break into the towering fortress that Priya has holed herself away in and discover that she sold ammunition to a Russian oligarch, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who had the cartridges inverted. To get to Sator, they attempt to go through his wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), an art collector and expert. I’ll leave the plot description there, I don’t want to spoil it any further, but I feel that’s enough to get a direction of where the film is headed (well, maybe not quite, but it at least decribes who the major players in the story are). Personally speaking, I could understand the broad strokes of what was happening but from scene to scene the logic of what was happening was not easily digestible. Which is saying something as I rarely ever have a hard time understanding what’s going on in a movie at this point. I’m not trying to humblebrag my way into a justifiably negative outlook on the film or anything like that, I’m just saying that if I had a hard time following the story- I can only imagine what kind of experience the casual moviegoer had with this one. This is different from the rhetoric around Nolan’s other high concept spy film, “Inception”- which I understood the story of the first time around and found it to be a much more enjoyable film experience. That’s not to say this is a bad film by any means, it’s just a bit of a mess at times.
This is a film that’s got so many things going for it, that I can hardly knock it for narrative comprehension- but that did have an effect on my time with the film. There are some seriously great sequences throughout the film. There are intricate heists, some excellent fight scenes, thrilling car chases, there’s a lot of really fantastic stuff that I truly wish I could have seen on the big screen over the summer- but hey, it is what it is. The performances from the actors is top notch, very quick-witted and technical, but nowhere near as much thorough characterization as I would have liked. This is probably the best role I’ve seen from Elizabeth Debicki, and I really enjoyed both John David Washington and Robert Pattinson’s performances- they shared a palpable chemistry that evolved as the film went on. Kenneth Branagh also delivered a very good villian in Sator, I really enjoyed the menace and danger that he brought to the story. I also have to applaud the reliance on practical effects, the film felt as big as it looked with a tangible sense of scale and urgency. Though Nolan’s sound mixing still detract’s from the film’s clarity a bit, it’s just too much in some scenes. Overall, this is a good film, with some flaws that could erode after multiple viewings, but only time will tell on that front. I do recommend giving it a watch, or three.
Final Score: 10 Minutes