“Tenet” Deals in Jarring Shifts and Anti-Climax, Yet Buttressed by Charisma

Noah Stephenson
Jan 30 · 5 min read
A blurred white man (left) & concerned bearded Black man (right) on either side of bullet mark ridden glass. Both wear suits.
Robert Pattinson (left) and John David Washington (right) as the dapper agents of “Tenet.” (Image Credit: Hoyte Van Hoytema/Warner Brothers)

Tenet is a singularly frustrating artifact, brimming with thematic and executional potential that bizarrely never comes to fruition; not because its conceit is as labyrinthine as some have hailed, but because its narrative hook- backwards moving time-seems to have been built up beforehand in its author Christopher Nolan’s head to such a self congratulatory yet vague degree that it is shoved onscreen as a not-yet-fully-formed sketch, one so thoroughly viewing the confined altitude of its own sphincter that it simply forgets to follow through. Undoubtably one half elating action thriller, Tenet is also unfortunately one half barely rendered video game cut-scene, pointing frantically at itself, encouraging you to gasp, when all you want to do is find a thesis somewhere in the uneven haze.

Resting firmly on familiar Spy-film premises of a rag-tag team preventing global destruction (but here with the aforementioned amusing, rewinding twist) present is a degree of genre homage which, in a relieving way, is much less aggravating than that of say a Quentin Tarantino; opting for tinkering with, rather than rehashing, well known tropes. Our audience surrogate (John David Washington, playing the dubiously named lead “The Protagonist”) finds himself recruited by shadowy peacekeepers to infiltrate and upend a sinister weapons procurement effort; the materials of which mysteriously originating from our not too distant future.

And yet we discover that the same quantum physical inversions are also being used by those protecting the present. Backwards flying bullets and reversed hand-to-hand duels abound in what would be a curious visual and narrative experiment on it’s own, if not for the distracting remainder of the film. Gradually found in the bourgeoisie enclaves of various countries and mixed into the swaggering proceedings are Neil (Robert Pattinson), a fellow dashing but reticent agent with hiring of elusive provenance, and Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), the estranged but trapped wife of Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a caricatured villain of such prodigious cheeseball proportions that you can picture him twirling an imaginary mustache in his sleep.

The charismatic leads keep the project from entirely falling apart, despite anyone tasked with delivering the encyclopedic exposition inherent to a Nolan joint understandably brushing at the edges of disengagement (with Debicki handling her scenes best in this way; taking pauses and vocal tone shifts to their dramatic apotheosis in a project honestly undeserving of her inimitable presence). Much justified kerfuffle has been made of Nolan’s point-missing reevaluation here of his previous films’ tendency to treat women as objects of grief; in this film deciding to give Debicki’s Kat nothing more than a maternal bond to ostensibly deepen her character. It’s a feature as embarrassing as it sounds, not only glaringly sexist but also betraying the very soul of decent characterization.

Pattinson, ever gliding into wonkier and wonkier roles post-twilight saga, brings a certain playful panache to that which could have otherwise been entirely dry as a geriatric Cracker Jack. Aging gracefully out of his boyishness and into a stark corporeal angularity, he reminds one of heartthrobs of his native Britain’s past; Peter O’Toole or perhaps a young Bill Nighy. Washington-while only occasionally rolling out a syllabic, perhaps unconscious resemblance to his father (Denzel’s) persona-manages to skillfully sell his character’s selflessness and humor, despite the blank machismo Nolan wrote into him. A certain impressive, literal, pictorial coolness is also found within the images of Tenet, limned by second time Nolan collaborator and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema; and the film’s musical score- one distinctly not authored by Hans Zimmer (uncommon to Nolan projects of late)-unobtrusively mirrors the time-reverse play of the story.

Some have remarked upon the film’s similarity to a James Bond installment (one sans the imperialism); rightly detecting its artifice of pacing and occasional fight scenes which toss aside Nolan’s usual tackle-punch-and-grunt style of choreography, particularly in an early scene wherein The Protagonist makes enthrallingly creative use of kitchenware. One almost perceives the movie’s first half as leading to more of the same; daring heists and sleek break ins, all with a sprinkling of sci-fi novelty. Upon that realization, one is actually quite content. Yet once our second act reaches its close, the rug is pulled out from under us in the most unnecessary and jumbled of manners. A conceptual extension of the already established time inversion is introduced in much too brief a scene; alienating lexicon is pulled out of thin air; suddenly the military becomes involved (lead by an absurdly accented Aaron Taylor-Johnson). One can’t help but sense a cheapness, a selfishness, as if the author is holding his cards back until some grand finale.

That very finale however proves as horrifically dull as its lead up is exciting; rudely devolving into an architecture-combusting “Call of Duty” style siege drama, one placed in a locale eerily reminiscent of Iraq or Afghanistan (…so perhaps I was wrong about that “without the imperialism” comment). The scene’s sense of proxemics are a wash, faces are obscured by combat gear, and we are left wondering if there will be some greater catharsis. Some does come in an intercut conflict involving Kat and Andrei, but it is allowed painfully little screen time. Nolan’s filmic train tracks divert from prim and goofy to dour and detached in one of the most disappointing about faces I’ve ever seen.

But ultimately, somehow, a minute dangling thread of the project one can’t help but play with is, at the very least, Washington and Pattinson’s chemistry; whether subtextually homoerotic, homosocial, or some mixture of both, they do share an undeniable banter, stolen glances, and a calming visual balance even when walking side by side, each seeming to inevitably magnetize towards the other. A beat late in the story imbues this relationship with a kind of tragedy that- recalling a particular arc of latter day Doctor Who- smacks of emotional manipulation and sequel baiting.

As a fan of this pairing, I don’t deny that such a follow up would be a welcome reset, but looking at the emotionally distant touch with which Nolan painted these men, the prospects of his producing the kitschy and pathos charged next chapter one would hope for are slim indeed. Perhaps we can yearn for these characters’ futures (and pasts?) through fan-fiction; I do not imagine for one second that I am the only viewer of this film who has considered writing such pieces. Ultimately, if one ends up seeking out this film for a hopeful flourishing buddy-movie dynamic, then they are as in for an insulting anti-climax as those who anticipate the film for some form of consistently sincere spectacle.

I Hear They Need People There

Film and sometimes Television criticism and essays by Noah…

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