There’s never a dull moment in Tenet, a globe-trotting, hi-tech, time-tripping action blow-out from writer/producer/director Christopher Nolan – but there are plenty of confusing ones.
Since the film’s release, the (deservedly) acclaimed filmmaker has expressed dismay that critics and some audiences have found the film’s convoluted structure difficult or even impossible to follow. Indeed, they may have a point, but perhaps the best way to approach Tenet is simply to sit back and enjoy the ride, and quite a wild ride it is.
Nolan is an undisputed master of orchestrating grand-scale mayhem, and Tenet is jam-packed with it. If it’s action you’re looking for, Tenet is a gift that keeps on giving. To pause and ponder the implications of the plot is futile.
John David Washington plays a CIA agent known simply as “the Protagonist,” who is charged with infiltrating the inner circle of dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a ridiculously wealthy Russian arms dealer who is clearly up to no good. Not only is he maneuvering to kick-start World War III but he’s plenty mean to his elegant wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki).
It’s through Kat that the Protagonist draws closer to his quarry. There’s a slight frisson of attraction between the two, but there’s no place for romance here – not when there’s so much stuff to blow up. In order to save the world, an awful lot of damage has to be done first, which Nolan executes in his customarily spectacular fashion.
The very word “tenet” is a palindrome, meaning it’s the same whether read backward or forward, which is a good indication how the film operates, shifting through time back and forth, up and down, inside-out, and basically any which way Nolan deems appropriate. Tenet bears some comparison to the Back to the Future and Matrix trilogies, as well as the Timecop franchise, and could easily be the springboard for a franchise of its own. It makes, breaks, and rewrites its own rules, yet it’s consistently enjoyable.
There’s a good cast on hand, but Tenet is hardly an acting showcase. Washington (son of Denzel) is lean, mean, tough, tenacious, has charisma to burn, and certainly does the family trade proud. The ageless Branagh, sporting the spot-on Russian accent he previously employed in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), clearly revels in Sator’s wickedness. He’s mean, too, but also nasty and cruel, and he injects what little humor – dark though it may be – into the proceedings.
Robert Pattinson, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Fiona Dourif turn up periodically as the Protagonist’s support team, while Dimple Kapadia and Yuri Kolokolnikov contribute to the villainy quotient as Sator’s cohorts. The always welcome Michael Caine, like Branagh a mainstay of Nolan’s films, appears briefly as a wise British agent whose function is essentially to provide a bit of exposition for the Protagonist, but the exposition he provides doesn’t clear matters up much. Still, it’s nice having him around.
Simply put, Tenet is a prime example of Filmmaker as Star. Christopher Nolan is the driving force. It’s his talent and his vision, and it’s absolutely on the screen.
When one looks back on Nolan’s career, which kicked off in spectacular fashion with his second film, Memento (2000), he has yet to take a misstep or make a legitimate misfire. Some films are better than others, but all of them boast a certain, distinctive level of polish and quality. Tenet may be Nolan’s least engaging film on an emotional level, but that’s not to dismiss it out of hand. The film aims to entertain and does. It is something else and, then, it’s something else again.