TENET: A Temporal Pincer of Filmmaking & Story

Behind the scenes of Tenet (2020) | Dir. Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan’s next event is finally here amidst a time where time itself has become a mirage. In other words, what better way is there to question the existential nature of reality, time, and purpose than through the guise of Nolan’s signature element? There may be no other way or perhaps what’s happened, has happened.

*Minor plot details mentioned ahead or… behind*

Interstellar, in my opinion, is Nolan’s perfect synthesis of complexity, exposition, and emotional resolution. His films, sometimes criticized as empty visual spectacle coupled with plot-heavy characterization, divide those into the “auteur” and “technical master, weaker storyteller” camps. Audiences were perplexed further when Nolan made Dunkirk — a film with minimal dialogue, anxiety-inducing fight or flight at every corner, and an experience that was more macro focused than ever before. There was no single fleshed out “protagonist” so to speak in Dunkirk. Nolan focused on certain individuals, but we were thrown into the thick of the chaos — bullets, bombs, and planes whizzing by rather than filling us in on character details during places to breathe — of which there were none. The raw, unfiltered, race against the clock is part of what made Dunkirk work. I mention all of this to set the stage for Tenet, in which it turns out we get a blend of Nolan’s approaches.

If Dunkirk is Nolan’s most stripped-down film, Tenet is quite the opposite, bullying the senses all the same, but this time throwing the demands of dialogue-heavy spy thriller right through the middle. John David Washington’s “The Protagonist” is a vessel for “the job” just as much as he is to Nolan’s disposal of plot. Yet, he becomes rounded, dimensional, and humanized by Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki’s characters. In a way, it feels like Nolan’s trying to guide the protagonist out just as much as he’s propelled inwards toward saving the world. The stakes are massive, but we feel more tied to how things end up with how the fallout affects Kat and her son.

It’s by no means a perfect display of writing here — and by that, I mean writing female characters who aren’t bound to cliche and very weak damsel in distress arcs — but I actually feel like he pulls it off to an extent this time. Elizabeth Debicki’s character anchors this whole film and she ends up taking liberty of her trajectory — not by hardening into the strong female archetype that’s denied attachment and vulnerability (while being defined solely by her trauma), but by empathy and perseverance. It grounds the film with open arms and I absolutely love how it payoffs. Not to mention, Elizabeth Debicki is a STAR and deserves just as much praise as her male costars here. It all feels like a self-aware exploration of both genre tropes and Nolan’s flaws. It’s imperfect but gets the job done for the context of the film.

As a whole, Tenet’s layers of exposition — whether it physics jargon or cryptic espionage — feel as if they are tripping over themselves at times. As a result, you feel behind, lost even, not over the concepts, but dynamics of who, what, where, why? You have the brain, but the connective tissue disillusions you from feeling on track. This film dearly missed Lee Smith’s (Nolan’s go to editor) touch. It’s mind-boggling to me how Nolan masterfully displays action here — often in and out of different and reversed timelines, past/future selves, alternate POVs with complex reveals and reactions, yet structurally it just jumps around frenetically.

That being said, when Ludwig Göransson’s score bolsters through Tenet’s exceptional, unique, and time-bending set pieces, it all just bloody works — of course it works. There’s just nobody making big movies like Christopher Nolan and despite this film's flaws, the spectacle is a sight to be seen. I can’t tell you the number of times I was thinking to myself “how the hell do you even come up with coverage to shoot this”. The car chase, the plane sequence, and the third act raid, in particular, have so many moving pieces, yet it all molds together as one visually beautiful, extravagant, and inverted symphony.

Before I touch on a few more positives, I have to address the glaring flaw that’s been pretty universally agreed upon. Tenet, being heavily dependent on dialogue, has a lot of dialogue! (this isn’t the issue) Characters are often masked, impaired, running, etc, and for some reason, the sound mix is egregiously overpowered. I probably lost 40% of the dialogue throughout. It’s to the point that I genuinely hope they consider a remix for the home release. Ludwig’s score absolutely drowns everything and it’s extremely frustrating trying to pick up the missed details. I saw the film on the biggest IMAX screen in my area, and still, there are sections that are completely incomprehensible. It’s baffling. I’m hoping I’ll catch it again in theaters, but if not I look forward to watching with subtitles.

Since this is a spoiler-free review, I’m going to lean more towards the performances and hint at a few character things instead of summarizing. As mentioned, John David Washington is “The Protagonist” and he absolutely slays this role. I already knew he was immensely talented from his performance in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, but he flourishes as a full-blown action star here. He’s got the collected gravitas of Bond, charisma, and underlying naivety that helps accumulate us to the world of Tenet. At his side, Robert Pattinson plays Neil — the eccentric middle man who we slowly learn more about throughout the film. Pattinson and Washington’s chemistry is delightful, and given where things end up — it’s relatively easy to buy into the payoff of their dynamic.

Kenneth Branagh goes way over the top as Sator, and it mostly works as it matches his character's motivation and place within the story. He sells a damn good persona of impenetrable intellect and anger as a mask for his character’s cowardice. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Dimple Kapadia shine in their minor but impactful roles.

I’d love to dig into the actual plot and thematic implications at some point, but as of now, Tenet has me at a crossroads or as we call it here — a temporal pincer. Nolan has once again crafted a compelling original world, filled with unique rules and players. The action showcases him at his strongest, captivating thrills while weaving in and out of mind-bending exchanges, elaborate choreography, and a technical masterclass. Yet, it feels if, in Nolan’s attempt to reinvent the globetrotting spy thriller, the genre unraveled his flaws against its demands. Nonetheless, Tenet is one of kind from a one of kind filmmaker. It may not surpass some of his most acclaimed works, but it’s another strike of ambition that Hollywood rarely gets on this large of scale.